A Fresh Look

It’s hard to miss Terry Gross if you are a commuter in Silicon Valley. As much as I intend to leave the office in time to hear the endlessly entertaining Kai Ryssdal, by the time I have shut down the computer each evening and made it to the car, seven o’clock has crept up on me and it’s time for the far less entertaining Terry Gross with FRESH Air. Just the way she says it annoys me.

Songs for Young LoversRoger Ebert died this week and one of the best things about famous people dying is that Terry Gross always has an interview with them from 1987 when the famous person was at the pinnacle of their abilities and Terry Gross sucked a little bit less at interviewing. Of course, Terry had several interviews with Roger and even one with Siskel and Ebert together that was quite delightful.

I appreciate Terry Gross’s interview recycling because I’ve long had a theory that we have an obligation to remember great people before they got old even, or especially, when we only ever knew them as old or infirm. Inside every old person is a young person who doesn’t really understand that he’s old now. We should all make a better effort to get to know the young person.

My favourite example is Frank Sinatra. People of my generation think of Frank Sinatra as an old man who sang romantic songs in an old man’s voice. Close your eyes and conjure up Ol’ Blue Eyes singing My Funny Valentine. Did you picture someone like who looked like this?

Old Frank
Old Frank

Sorry, you got the wrong guy. Songs for Young Lovers was recorded in 1953 . When Frank was in the prime of his superstardom in the 40s, he looked like this.

Young Frank
Young Frank

And… he had the same voice as that old guy!

The next time you play some romantic Frankie tunes, don’t make the mistake of imagining that old dude whose voice your grandmother was partial to. That’ll snuff out your spark of romance in no time.

Imagine this guy instead.

Young Frank
Young Frank with Hot Young Grandmother

You can play this game with a whole geriatric ward of interesting old folks. That dude who sang Heartbreak Hotel? He wasn’t an overweight lounge lizard in a sequined white jumpsuit.

It was this guy.

Elvis, Heartbreaker.
Elvis, Heartbreaker.

The Man in Black – another guy who sounded ancient?

The Man in Black
Walking the Line in 1956

Who else sounds ancient? Oh yes, the inspiration for a thousand blog titles, Mr Bob Dylan. The guy who sang Blowing in the Wind looked like this.

Bob Dylan
How many roads, Bob?

Roger Ebert’s very best writing flowed when the tributaries of underground memories trickled into his stream of thought as in this meandering tale wandering through the London of his youth and his later battle with infirmity.

On my imaginary walk I could have turned right at the end of Jermyn and walked up St. James to Piccadilly, and down to Park Lane, and up toward Notting Hill, and I could have passed the Mason’s Arms on my way to Pembridge Square and nodded while passing the Hyde Park West Hotel, where I had a tiny room with a window that opened to allow me to stand on a wide roof overlooking London. I could have had lunch at Costa’s, behind the Gate at Notting Hill, the famous movie theater. Or headed on west to Lord Leighton’s House. Or I could have simply walked out the far end of Pembridge Square and stopped for lunch at the Sun in Splendor– the Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1968. Why do I know that?

I realize this could get boring. It probably already has. I’ll try to get to my point. Sometimes when I write, you understand, it’s like when I walk around London. When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street, which is how I found Chiswick House, which I had no idea existed.

We should all do Roger a favour and banish the old chubby with the missing jaw from our imagination. Remember, instead, the young chubby who always wanted to be a great writer and be thankful that he achieved his dream.

A young, aspiring writer
A young, aspiring writer

During the Fresh Air interview mash-up, one interviewee said that the secret to Ebert’s movie reviewing was that he didn’t much care how good a movie was; he cared how much he enjoyed it. His writing was like that too. I’ve been following Ebert’s blog for several years and he always gives the impression that he is writing to delight himself and his delight is infectious. I adore the way he wanders off topic into his own memories and shares them with such simple clarity that they become mixed in with your own.

Reading an Ebert story inevitably makes me want to write one of my own but, as I have a rather busy weekend of me, I’ll have to settle, Terry Gross-style, for replaying a favourite story or two that I stumbled across this morning when I happened to click this link.

The first is about the damage that hidden shame can wreak. Ebert takes a passage from his review of The Reader and turns it into a recollection about a shameful passage in his own history.

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame. The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

My Deepest Shame

The second is about the limits of empathy and the terrible thinks that happen when your empathy is too limited.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

A Beautiful Mind

In every Ebert story, there is always a whispered shout-out to some character from the past who had an influence on his life. Roger, you are in my past now but, muse be willing, the influence of your stories will live on in mine.

What day is it?

I love the show RadioLab (from W-Y-N …Ceeeeeee!).

It’s an hour-long show but I never get to listen to it because I can rarely find an uninterrupted hour to put aside to sit through a whole podcast. Sometimes, I’ll catch a bit on the actual radio in the car but I always regret it because I’ll catch it in the middle and I’ll make it home before the end of the show. It almost makes me wish I had an hour-long commute so I could hear a whole show.

Recently, I have been trying to listen to the show in bed and I try to get an hour in before I sleep. I rarely make it through the first guest before I drift off and I wake to find my wife pulling out my earphones and half the show is over. I have listened to half of many, many radiolabs and, often, the same half of a radiolab over and over as I tried to catch up on the one I slept through yesterday which, of course, makes me even more sleepy because it’s boring to hear the same stuff over and over and you don’t always realize you’ve heard it already until you’ve heard it again. With me so far?


Today, I have friends coming over to play silly games involving sheep and barrels of indigo. For one reason or another, I haven’t slept for a couple of nights so I thought I’d get in an hour’s nap so I can better monopolize the tobacco and the mating room. What better way to guarantee that I would sleep than by listening to a RadioLab show?

Trouble was, the show was incredibly interesting [isn’t it always? – ed] and about 10 minutes in I was trying desperately trying to stay awake so I could hear it.

The second segment was about a woman who temporarily lost her memory (something something locally something amnesia – I forget what exactly) and her daughter took her to the hospital thinking she’d had a stroke [been there -ed]. One of the fascinating symptoms was that the woman couldn’t form new memories and would ask the same questions over and over.

What day is it?

How long have I been here?

Why am I here?

What’s wrong with me?

And, over and over, her daughter would patiently answer the same questions. Eventually, she noticed that the conversation wasn’t just repeating a similar pattern; it was repeating EXACTLY THE SAME PATTERN with a frequency of exactly 90 seconds.

They have a recording of the whole thing and they were able to overlay one round of conversation exactly onto the next and see that they were exactly identical with identical pauses and identical expressions of surprise from the mother. Eventually, a little variation crept in such as, the daughter observing to her mother that, not only have we had this conversation already 183 times already today, we are about to have it again in 5…4…3…

Sadly, this was all eerily familiar to me too. I don’t remember that the repetition was quite so regular but I too took someone very dear to the hospital with temporary amnesia.

In the beginning, she knew that she was forgetting and worked hard, like the guy in Memento, to keep everything straight and apologized in advance for the fact that her memory was bad and that she was sure to forget things.

Our patterns of conversation were eerily similar to the lady in radiolab.

Can you explain to me why I am in hospital? Why are my parents here from Malta? It must be serious, right?

I patiently explained one hundred – no, one thousand – times that she had a tumour that was pressing on the part of her brain where memories get made and that they couldn’t remove the tumour because the operation was too dangerous. Each time I explained her situation, her heart broke a little more but each time she amazed me with her bravery and stoic acceptance and determination that if there was a way to get through, she would find it.

One day though, she refused to believe my explanation and started to argue. Dick that I was, I argued back.

I am NOT losing my memory! My memory is fine.

I’m sorry but it’s true. In a few minutes, you’ll have forgotten all about this conversation and you’ll ask me again.

I will not!

You will…

Will what?

Forget this conversation…

What conversation?

Oh…never mind….

I felt like such a shit for arguing and redoubled my patience the next time around.

The lady in the RadioLab story made a full recovery and was able to laugh at a terrible and frightening part of her life. My story did not have such a happy ending and it pops back into my memory sometimes in those twilight moments between waking and sleeping. I hope I never forget.

D’you ever wish that you were better informed?

The News of the World began Murdock’s journey to media domination nearly 40 years ago. Let’s hope it ends it too.

We always knew you were shit. But we never knew you were this shit.

It says here that the unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud
That we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy

Those braying voices on the right of the house
Are echoed down the street of shame
Where politics mix with bingo and tits
In a strictly money and numbers game.

Billy Bragg. Poet.

Fool me early

Ooh! They almost had me. But then i remembered the time difference.

A few short weeks from now, with the world looking on, William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor will exchange rings with Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, and much of Britain will rejoice. Yet, at such moments, certain voices – this newspaper’s included – have long expressed dissent. All this mawkish celebration, they maintain, merely bolsters an anti-democratic institution based on privilege and patronage, a costly anachronism that ought to be abolished. That view is understandable. But it is time for them – for us – to reconsider. A decade ago, the Guardian prominently announced its commitment to republicanism. But Prince William has shown that he can be a new kind of king. That is why, in a significant change of course, we today pledge our full-throated support for the British monarchy.

The Guardian. Editorial.

Live well

This is as fine a definition of virtue as I have ever seen.

Why is self-assertion important? “We have a responsibility to live well. Our challenge is to act as if we respect ourselves. Enjoying ourselves is not enough.” But doesn’t self-assertion clash with our moral duties to others? “No. The first challenge is to live well — that is ethics” and then to see how that connects with what we owe other people “ which is morality. The connection is twofold. One is respect for the importance of other people’s lives. And the other is equal concern for their lives.”

Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

Mr Jeffries is the Guardian’s Frank Rich. Mr Rich just resigned from the New York Times right at the moment that they are asking me for $$$$ to continue reading it. He is a big loss to the op-ed page. Lucky for them they gave me a free subscription or I would’ve been outta there,

For years, Mr Rich was an art critic or something but he wrote about whatever-the-hell he wanted. It’s usually the big political issue of the day but very often on big philosophical questions. Eventually the NYT realized that Rich was more of an op-ed kind of guy than an art critic kind of guy and moved him to another page. He has gone to the New Yorker or something and I will miss him sorely.

But there’s still Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian.

One day he’ll be interviewing the star of Danish police drama that is apparently the most popular show on BBC4. The next he is opining on morality or commenting on the budget.

He is great to read but I wonder what it is like to be his editor.

A Series of Tubes

Sir Tim’s Ted talk was pretty silly but his interweb thingie is pretty cool and the true story deserves to be told. Now, for the first time, Verity Stob has that story.

Here, for the first time on the series of tubes that made Sir Tim famous, is the memo that he wrote to make it possible.

You will remember ages ago I knocked out a little app called Enquire on the Vax? It works quite well for organising stuff, so naturally the [nationality redacted] refuse to use it.

My idea is:

  • Glue a few NeXT friendly graphics on the front of Enquire,
  • Sprinkle a few software marketing terms (‘hyper-‘ this and ‘turbo-‘ that) to confuse the forces of darkness such as the Director and his bunch of admin zombies,
  • Recode some of it in Objective C so that nobody can argue about which platform it runs on,
  • Bung in the Ops manuals,
  • Bung in the Unix man text – oops, I mean ‘hyper-text’,
  • Push out the whole lot as a ‘Turbo Universal Reference Document System’ (TURDS for short – this part might need some more work) for the whole of the CERN network.

Neat, eh? No way is ISOLDE going to be able to touch our NeXT when she is running THAT beauty.

(By the way, have you seen Objective C? It’s a scream. It’s like the C language, into which somebody has melted half a pint of Smalltalk. You can bet your bottom dollar that THAT is not going to be around in 20 year’s time. By then, of course, we will all be coding in Occam.)

Read the whole memo at The Register.

Amazingly, our local NBC news stations did a broadcast 8 years earlier than Sir Tim’s fateful memo predicting the whole thing – but also predicted that the “tele-paper won’t be much competition for the printed kind”.

Playing the Game

I just watched the Cramer interview on The Daily Show. Awesome.

Of the many, many blogs about the show, the most astute is Glen Greenwald’s in Salon who draws the broader picture – the only journalism happening on TV is on Comedy Central.

Greenwalds draws an interesting parallel between Cramer

CRAMER:  I always wish that people would come in and swear themselves in before they come on the show.  I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show.  It’s very painful. I don’t have subpoena power. . . .

and the run up to the Iraq War

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September Eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES.  And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES.  It’s a circular, self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.


Compare Russert’s self-defense to how and why he uncritically amplified Government lies (“I wish my phone had rung“) to Cramer’s pretense of victimization over the fact that CEOs lied to him and so there was nothing he could do but assume they were telling the truth (“I don’t have subpoena power”).  Stewart’s primary criticism of Cramer applies with exactly equal force to the excuse offered by Tim “Wish My Phone Had Rung” Russert

The most illuminating moment in the Cramer interview was when Jon Stewart asked Cramer who is he responsible to? What’s his role? For whose benefit is Cramer reporting?

The whole news cycle is a game of prisoners dilemma, where the journalists and the politicians and the captains of industry have a lot to gain by cooperating with each other and a lot to lose by not playing the game.