Wednesday, December 8, 2010
When I resigned from Google, back in May, my plan was to work on various projects of my own, including a travel-related website (http://www.skyjinks.com) and, most importantly, a screenplay. But after a few months of self-employment I realized that I missed working with great people. I also noticed that having a lot of time to devote to these projects was not helping me get them done any faster. In fact my productivity took a sharp nosedive. Since only a fool would stick to a plan that isn't working, I decided to change tack and apply for a job. And I'm particularly happy that this job is at Twitter.
Being around great people was one of my main criteria in deciding where I wanted to apply. And I've always had high regard for Twitter on this count. I know many Twitter employees from my past life, and every single one of them is someone I like, respect and would love to work with again. And the people I've newly met there during the recruiting process have been just as impressive. The flock, as Twitter employees are collectively known, are friendly, talented and motivated. I can't wait to start working with them.
What, you ask, of my other projects? Well, that's what nights and weekends are for. The screenplay, in particular, will still receive significant attention. It has to - I have to deliver it to the producer sooner or later. But, as Lucille Ball once said, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it." And it turns out that I'm happiest when I'm busy.
So put me to work, Twitter!
Thursday, July 15, 2010
I'll mention right now that I am not allowed to post photos from the tour, but I'll be happy to email some to you on request. It'll be worth it. The views are absolutely unique!
How did I get to do this, you ask? Well, an acquaintance of mine who works for the bridge set it up as a huge favor. Unfortunately it's not available to the general public.
There was some chance the tour would be canceled due to fog. Here in Noe Valley (alright, fine, The Castro) it was sunny and warm, without a cloud in the sky. But the bridge apparently has weather of its own, due to it straddling the tumultuous meeting of ocean and bay. However the tower cameras confirmed that there was enough visibility to justify a tour, so up we went.
Here's how it all went down: I arrived at the administration building on the west side of the toll plaza, where I met the other visitor (only two can go up at one time) and our awesome guide. She gave each of us a hard hat and a waiver. After signing my life away, and confirming that I am neither claustrophobic nor agoraphobic, we got into the back of a little bridge cart, and our guide drove us onto the east side walkway. It was slow going, honking along the way at pedestrians, bikers and tourists. Eventually we arrived at the south tower, which was less fogged-in than the north tower.
If you run or bike the bridge you've probably been curious about the service hatches at the foot of each tower. It was a fun moment when the guide whipped out a key, unlocked the hatch, and we walked into the base of the tower, leaving the jealous tourists outside.
Inside the hatch is an elevator the size of a small phone booth. This is where not being claustrophobic came in handy. As the three of us rode up in proximity usually reserved for couples on their wedding night, our guide explained that this was the original elevator built when the bridge was constructed in the 1930s. It took a full 5 minutes to ride the 500 feet to the top.
Once out of the elevator, you climb up a couple of steel ladders, eventually emerging out of a very narrow hatch onto the platform at the very top of the tower. Words cannot describe how awesome this is. As you emerge your eyes are immediately drawn down the suspension cables to the road bed, where you can watch tiny little cars weave their way through traffic.
The views, as you'd expect, are beyond outstanding. We were above the fog, which rolled in and burned out as we watched. I'd had no idea fog was so dynamic. The city side was more heavily fogged in, but we got some great glimpses of downtown and of Sutro tower. The views of Marin were clearer, but it was looking down onto the bridge itself and the surrounding bay that provided the most unique and spectacular sights.
Besides the views, strolling around the top of the tower is an experience in its own right. There's something surreal about being up there, next to the huge communications dishes, walking around to the outside of the turrets to explore new camera angles. We're used to seeing the top of the tower as tiny and the bottom as huge. Having that sense of scale inverted was unique and wonderful. Most of all, it was a trip just to be somewhere you're not really meant to be, somewhere that only a relative handful of people will ever have the good fortune to visit.
After 15 minutes of ooh, aahs and shutter clicks, we headed back down the ladders, down the elevator, out onto the walkway and back to normality.
What a rush!
Monday, June 21, 2010
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
A few days ago we were told the last sardine cannery in the US closed its doors for good. A symbol, so the story goes, of how far sardines–once a staple of working-class pantries across the nation–have fallen out of favor with the American palate.
But if you get past the bad “last sardine factory canned” puns, this narrative starts to seem, ahem, fishy. Because, in fact, the sardine is like Bad Company, alive, well and making a comeback. (Continue on summertomato.com)
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Bands you liked are usually still good 5 years after their peak. That's just a hiatus really. And a bunch of old fogies that cobble together a reunion tour after 20 years of "side projects" are usually just cashing in on a new generation of suckers and are predictably crap (Simon and Garfunkel being the happy exception).
But 10 years after the high point is the unpredictable border line between credible artistry and cynical profit-taking. For every awesome 90s band tour (Pixies, Jane's Addiction) there seems to be a disappointingly mediocre one (The Cure).
So when I heard that one of my favorite bands, Faith No More, were reforming for a tour I was incredibly excited, but also apprehensive. I had seen them live in 1995 and 1997, and those are still among the best shows I've ever seen. Could they live up to their own high standards? The answer, as I happily discovered last night, is "hell yeah!" And also "wow".
Mike Patton's voice has lost none of its range and charisma, and the band can still pound out a song with that combination of abandon and precision that Faith No More always excelled at.
They opened with a sincere cover of "Reunited" by Peaches and Herb, reminding the audience of how well FNM cover ballads without being ironic (think "Easy", "Midnight Cowboy"). We got a few more tastes of this later in the show - A cover of "Ben" by Michael Jackson (Patton pulls off a superb MJ pastiche), another of the theme from "Chariots of Fire", and even a version of "Poker Face" sounded genuine despite beats that should have sent Lady Gaga running for shelter.
But we were soon onto favorites too numerous to list, such as a great rendition of "Land of Sunshine" and a blistering romp through "Midlife Crisis", reminding us that, despite it being so overplayed back in the 90s, it's a truly excellent song. "Ashes to Ashes", a favorite from their last album, sounded just as fresh as it did back then, as did crossover hit "Epic". But a true surprise was saved for the encore, when Chuck Mosley went on stage to sing a few songs (including "We Care a Lot") from his days in the band. A classy move by all parties, considering the past acrimony.
To sum up: Faith No More have still got it, and then some. See them if you can.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
There are two ways to look at The Alchemist: as a work of literature and as a moral fable. Unfortunately, and despite its astonishing popularity, it doesn't score well on either count.
I won't bore you with the plot details, but in a nutshell: Santiago the Spanish shepherd boy leaves his known life behind to search for his "Personal Legend" in the deserts of north Africa. En route he encounters various characters, such as the titular Alchemist, who help him on his way, if a rambling series of cliches masquerading as philosophical wisdom can be considered helpful.
As a work of literature, it's trite, redundant and its dramatic elements are very weak. Instead of a protagonist who must grow, change, learn or overcome obstacles to achieve a goal we have one who knows, or is given, the answer to every dilemma as soon as it's posed, and who is basically led by the nose directly to his target by no less an authority than God himself, thinly disguised as "the Universe". No dramatic tension is allowed to linger for more than half a page before being forcibly resolved.
The Alchemist has been compared to The Little Prince. But whereas the latter's simplicity is charming, the former's is merely infantilizing. In Saint-Exupéry's incomparably superior novella the lessons are hard-earned. In The Alchemist, they are spoon-fed to the characters and to the reader in the manner of a church sermon, using mystical psychobabble terms like "The Soul of the World", "Master Work", and of course "Personal Legend".
This patronizingly religious aspect of The Alchemist illustrates its even more comprehensive failure, that as a moral fable. The Little Prince draws its broadly-sketched caricatures with charm and empathy: we are supposed to learn from the king, the lamplighter and so on, but we are not supposed to despise them. The Alchemist, however, can scarcely contain its disdain for those who don't drop everything to follow their so-called Personal Legend.
As an example, I give you this insidious passage:
The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.
“Well, he thought about that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.” “In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.”
Get it? A hardworking man who puts bread on people's plates and supports his own family with dignity, is now worthy of nothing but pity and disdain because he didn't follow a childhood dream.
And then there's this brazen claim:
"Everyone believes the world's greatest lie..." says the mysterious old man.
"What is the world's greatest lie?" the little boy asks.
The old man replies, "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."
Coelho fails to acknowledge that this pursuit of "Personal Legend" is a plaything of the privileged few. How does a 14 year old boy living hand-to-mouth in an Indonesian sweatshop follow his dream? How does he even articulate one? In what way can a rape survivor in a Darfur refugee camp, follow her "Personal Legend"? Her "Legend" is not to travel or find treasure. It is to have her dead family back. It's to undo her terrible violation. It is, in short, tragic and impossible.
The lives of most of humanity, are to a great degree controlled by fate. Their life is a struggle to survive. The real universe does not conspire to help people achieve their legend. Rather, it throws insurmountable obstacles across their paths. Yet Coelho is telling every downtrodden person in the world that their plight is due to their own spiritual failure, and that to see the world as it is, without the rose-tinted spectacles of empty truisms, is "the world's greatest lie". The Alchemist sneers with the certainty of a true believer at those whose priorities are hardscrabble rather than mystical. It is the well-known condescension of the religious absolutist to the unbeliever: I am right, and you are unworthy.
There is much to criticize, also, in The Alchemist's blatant sexism, where men are supposed to drop everything in search of their dreams, while abandoned women are supposed to feel privileged to pine for such men. And if you're expecting the treasure that the shepherd boy eventually finds to be metaphorical, prepare for disappointment. Turns out, it was all about money.
In the end, The Alchemist is morally deficient nearly to the point of outright evil. Stripped of the mystical mumbo jumbo, The Alchemist is almost Ayn Randian in the selfishness of its absolute commandment: follow your own personal destiny, whatever it is, whatever the cost to you or to others. Although, in a way, it's actually more slavish than selfish. At least in Ayn Rand's world, you master your destiny. In Coelho's world of religious prostration, your destiny masters you.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I attended the first J Street conference in Washington DC. Arriving at the hotel, I figured I'd see right-wing protesters, but there was only one sad eccentric wearing a yarmulka and a swastika. The organizers expected 1000 attendees, but 1500 showed up, leading to conference rooms bursting at the seams, a raucous atmosphere and a lot of fun. Especially at the evening reception. Few things are more entertaining that watching Jewish political dorks trying to get their groove on the dance floor.
The plenary sessions included a keynote speech by Gen. Jim Jones, President Obama's National Security Adviser, a panel with members of Congress of both parties and another with several senior current and former Israeli politicians. Smaller breakout sessions touched on such topics as the Geneva accords, US interests in the region, the settlements, NGOs in Israel/Palestine, civil society in Israel, human rights in the occupied territories, Palestinian perspectives on the peace process, and, most significantly, what it means to be pro-Israel.
Perhaps the most fascinating session was an eloquent townhall debate between J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yoffie, a mainstream yet reliably liberal voice, defended Israel's actions in the Gaza war, while asserting his support for the two-state solution and the need for Israel to provide full civil and human rights to all those who live within its borders. He also made a questionable distinction between "ideological" settlements east of the security wall and the settlement blocs west of the wall, the so-called "suburbs of Jerusalem". Ben-Ami responded by pointing out their many areas of policy agreement, while calling for a full settlement freeze and criticizing Israel's assault on Gaza as unwise, excessive and disproportionate to the threat being countered. Personally, I agree with Ben-Ami. Indeed, it seems to me that the knee-jerk defenses of Israel's actions in Gaza often stem more from cognitive dissonance than from genuine justification. Others may feel differently. But let's agree at least that neither position is beyond the pale.
The consensus at the conference, even among the critics of J Street who were invited to speak, was that any robust pro-Israel stance must support the two tenets of Zionism: that Israel must be a Jewish state, and a democratic state. And all agreed that this requires a two-state solution. Indeed, if you accept those premises then you'd be giving the rules of logic a run for their money by suggesting any other policy. And once you accept the two-state solution, its parameters are fairly clear: E.g., no settlements on the one hand, and no right of return on the other. J Street diverges from its critics primarily over the Gaza war and how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, but even on these issues J Street's positions are nuanced and reasoned, even if you happen to disagree with them.
There are also differing points of view on J Street's position that the US must play a robust role in the peace process, with the traditional AIPAC stance being that the US role should be limited to supporting Israeli positions. Again, I agree with J Street on this one. Let's not forget that engaged US administrations helped bring about the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, while an Israeli government left to its own devices, with passive American support, could do no better than the disastrous Gaza disengagement. Furthermore, supporters of J Street, and, for that matter, AIPAC, are American citizens first and foremost. What kind of politics is it to suggest to your own government that their policy in a region should be dictated exclusively by the government of another country, albeit a close ally? In the end, the US must act in its own interests in the Middle East.
It emerges, therefore, that, with a few quibbles, the policy positions J Street endorses are within the boundaries of mainstream Israeli, and American, politics. The two-state solution is the official policy of the governments of the US, the Palestinians and Israel. It is widely accepted in Israel from Likud leftwards, is supported by a large majority of US Jews and is essentially endorsed by AIPAC. Other positions may be more controversial, but are still within the confines of the "Zionist" political discourse in Israel. Israeli attendees at the conference included Ami Ayalon, Amir Peretz, Meir Shitreet, and other MKs from Kadima, Labor and Meretz. Congratulatory letters were sent by opposition leader Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres. None of these people could reasonably be accused of not being pro-Israel.
Notably absent from the conference, however, was Israel's ambassador to the US, or any other Israeli government representative. While members of the coalition Labour party spoke at the conference, the official stance of the Israeli government was one of disdain, alleging that some of J Street's position endanger Israel. Of course there's no need to take this overheated rhetoric too seriously. Accusing anyone you disagree with of destroying the country is par for the course in Israeli politics. the inflammatory rhetoric about J Street not being pro-Israel stems more from the threat J Street presents to entrenched interests than to any rational analysis of the issues.
What should be considered seriously, though, is the foolishness of the Israeli government's refusal to engage with its friendly critics. J Street is here to stay, and here's why. The American Jewish community is overwhelmingly liberal. They voted for President Obama in numbers exceeded only by those in the African-American community. And younger Americans also voted for Obama by large margins. This overwhelming support for liberal politics, while primarily domestically oriented, does influence how people think about the Middle East.
Furthermore, younger American Jews don't have the same sort of relationship with Israel that their parents do. The older generation sees Israel in emotional, almost mystical terms, and they back their allegiance up with political clout and donations. Many see Israel as a second nationality, and they take criticism of Israel very personally. Not because they would necessarily disagree with the criticism if they looked at it dispassionately, but because, as one member of Congress put it, "Israel is put upon by everyone, so at least we should always defend it".
Younger, politically active American Jews tend to see Israel very differently. They like Israel, and feel an emotional connection, especially those who've been on Birthright trips, but their identity as Jews is far less tied into Israel than that of their parents. The primary Jewish orientation, if any, of activists of the younger generation is not Israel but Tikkun Olam. Across the country, young Jews are synthesizing their Jewish identity and progressive politics into social and political activism. They increasingly view unquestioning support for Israel as incompatible with their values, and their national identity is overwhelmingly American. As such, they support active US engagement in the peace process for the simple reason that it is in America's interest. And they form their opinions on Israel not according to what Israeli government propaganda tells them but according to their own view of events and their own moral compass. These opinions may or may not concur with specific policies that J Street currently holds. That's not really the point. J Street represents a larger trend, of a community taking an active role in forming its political identity.
Extrapolate these trends 20-30 years into the future and you get a Jewish community that wants a connection with Israel, but only if that connection is a two-way street. If Israel says, in effect, "we want your political support, and your donations, but we're not interested in your opinions", people will tune out. The only way to keep the next generation engaged with Israel, Birthright trips notwithstanding, is for Israel to listen to them. Therefore bickering over this or that J Street policy is beside the point. Long term, the real choice will not be J Street vs. AIPAC, but J Street vs. nothing.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Sunday, June 7, 2009
rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Unconsoled is an astonishing, compelling, yet frustrating masterpiece. One that the reader will continue to think about long after putting down the final chapter.
In it, Ishiguro melds the self-important, obsessive yet ultimately impotent first-person narrative of several of his novels, notably The Remains of the Day, with a high dose of the surrealism only hinted at in his later novel When We Were Orphans, to create a highly readable yet sometimes infuriating book.
Mr. Ryder, a world-famous pianist, arrives in an anonymous Central European town. The townspeople grovel over his celebrity, constantly referring to the mysterious cultural crisis he is there to solve. Ryder is ever eager to please the locals, yet he has little grasp of why he's visiting their town and shows no ability to control his own destiny.
Events move beyond Ryder's control as he is dragged through a serious of maddening diversions. Ryder, and the rest of the townspeople, accept their dream-like, surreal world as completely normal: a door in a cafe far out in the woods opens back into the center of town, miles away; A two-floor elevator ride accommodates a ten minute conversation with a hotel porter; Ryder is able to perceive events and conversations that he has never witnessed.
Significantly, Ryder shows no surprise that people and objects from his childhood in England keep appearing, or that a woman he's just met acts as if she's his wife, stirring up maddeningly vague intuitions of a past and present relationship that he nonetheless goes along with.
Like in an anxious dream, every attempt to complete one errand creates a new diversion that takes Ryder further away from his goal. At first he takes these frustrations in his stride, while each new twist provides tantalizing hints about his past and his troubled childhood and early life. Yet tension increases as Ryder's performance nears, his ultimate purpose still unclear to him, although apparently not to the inscrutable townsfolk.
Ryder blunders through the town as an unreliable narrator, knowing less about his reality than the characters he interacts with, yet willing to go along with their explanations and excuses, incorporating them into his experiences and recycling them as his own. As in his other novels, Ishiguro seems here to be discussing how memories of the past, fragmented and unreliable as they may be, inform the present and give it meaning.
A common theme binding all Ryder's experiences and memories seems to be the flawed nature of human relationships, particularly those of parents and children. All the characters he interacts with have somehow harmed or disappointed their parents, their friends, their partners or their children. All are chasing around for some way to right the past, to find consolation in reconciliation, to regain their pride. All require Ryder's help to put their relationships right, much as the town itself needs him to help fix the murky crisis and return the city to its golden days of cultural ascendancy.
All these other characters' conflicts seem to mirror aspects of Ryder himself. The book keeps returning to the nature of his relationship with his own parents, yet this relationship is never explained, only hinted at. The final chapters of the book are a heartbreaking deflation of Ryder's own hopes regarding his parents and a yearning for the simple need for meaningful human contact, while remaining as cryptic as ever.
One way to examine familiar things in a new way is to change your viewpoint. Another, more fragile way, is to alter the background against which you examine them. Do so too prominently and you end up in the realms of science fiction. Do so subtly and you get a work as nuanced, strange yet moving as The Unconsoled. The book pits familiar human emotions and foibles against a world uncannily similar to ours, yet also eerie and disturbing. It is precisely this unusual backdrop that allows us to experience those emotions, fascinatingly, in a new way.
The Unconsoled challenges the reader to find a frame of reference against which to inspect it. At first, our sense of realism holds out hope that future chapters will explain away the surrealism through some mundane device. But Ishiguro is too skilled to allow such a clumsy resolution. If it's a dream, then there is no waking. If it's an allegory, then there is no moral. The novel ends without a big reveal. And while accepting the surrealism of its world, without being able to rectify it against the linearity of ours, is infuriating, what meaning is to be found in this strange and beautiful story we must find ourselves.
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