Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Sopranos Redux

The Sopranos has been out of our lives now for weeks, but somehow I just can't let it go. Today I came upon a piece in the current online edition of the New York Review of Books by Geoffrey O'Brien that is as smart and elegant a summary of the show and its attractions as you are likely to find. Here is a sample:

Chase's neatest trick was to make a show about the mob—a show that laid out in gratifying detail the workings of scams and hits, political connections and techniques of intimidation, internecine maneuverings and FBI infiltrations—that constantly suggested that the mob was not what the show was really about. By assimilating the mob into everyday life he dissolved it. Tony Soprano was the gangster who lived on the other side of the fence and sat at the next table in the restaurant, mingling in a world quite sufficiently corrupt without him. He was not, in old movie style, the outsider casting a sinister shadow over the American family; he was himself the prime representative of that family. He had grown up on sitcoms and Seventies rock, and there were moments when Tony and Paulie in the backroom of Satriale's metamorphosed into Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton at the Raccoon Lodge on The Honeymooners, or when Tony, launching one of his racist zingers, seemed a stand-in for Archie Bunker of All in the Family.

Tony was a domesticated end point for the romance of gangsterism that looks to be America's most durable contribution to world folklore. It was a romance fed by movies, not just the early classics with Cagney, Robinson, and Muni, but the harsher and less poetic later movies—The Enforcer (1951), The Brothers Rico (1957), Johnny Cool (1963)—in which gangsterism was no longer a violent aberration but the deadly norm, administered by unpitying accountants flanked by expressionless hitmen in dark glasses. (Cagney's Public Enemy—a Tony Soprano favorite—looked like a Miltonic rebel angel by comparison.) The cycle culminated in Coppola's Godfather films and Scorsese's Goodfellas, crucial reference points for The Sopranos.

And here is O'Brien's analysis of how Chase brought us, in the end, face to face with the reality that is mob life.

It was disturbing to realize how much we did care about these people. Each of the final episodes was anticipated not so much with pleasure as dread, since each posed the risk of an unacceptable loss, as characters in whom we had invested years of attention were swept away. None of the characters in The Sopranos precisely resembled Little Nell, of course. That it was possible to feel so much on behalf of characters often devoid of the least capacity for empathy was a typical Sopranos paradox. As if to emphasize that point, the last episodes went out of their way to cast Tony and the rest in an ever more remote and unsympathetic light. The endgame obliged us to be stripped of any remaining illusions. Perhaps, to ease the pain of our disengagement, Chase felt we should be reminded that we had permitted ourselves to love monsters.
Good stuff. As for his view of the much discussed final episode,

No imaginable end—Tony killed, dead by mischance, in prison, or in the witness protection program—seemed a satisfying prospect. In the last episode, tantalizingly, event followed event with the promise of freshly evolving situations, just as if the conclusion were not in sight. Perhaps the show would not end at all. In a sense it didn't. To the dismay of many viewers, a black screen—at the moment when Tony may or may not have been fatally shot by a hit man who may or may not have been there, as a jukebox song stopped on the phrase "don't stop"—froze all further narrative development. Or perhaps this was a way of conveying that the show had already ended, perhaps a long time before. After all, was there any kind of ending that we had not already seen? In a sense it had all been nothing but a succession of endings. We could hardly complain that there hadn't been enough of them.


Nine Minute Sopranos

Somehow I missed this excellent and well edited summary of all nine seasons of The Sopranos. Enjoy.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Premature Celebration About The End Of Institutional Interference In Wikipedia

Katie Hafner in today's NY Times celebrates the introduction of Wikiscanner, a web utility that performs a lookup of the owner of any computer network used to alter a Wiki page. The software was developed by Virgil Griffith, a 24 year old self described "disruptive technologist" from Santa Fe.

Using the software, numerous edits to corporate Wiki pages have been traced to such firms as WalMart, Pepsi, and even the Washington Post and NY Times. Over the coming days one can expect a nice flow of juicy revelations similar to those revealed today. Hafner's piece celebrates the assumed end of such shenanigans by those in corporate, political and non-profit organizations.

Trust me, the end is nowhere in sight. What is to prevent any institution from constantly reviewing the Wiki pages related to itself, commissioning edits that work in its own interests and then having an employee enter those changes from their home computer? In fact that would only be responsible behavior by any large organization. If the institution maintains credible deniability for its public relations and top corporate people and selects a person to actually perform the edit who has an unrecognizable user ID on an anonymous web server, who is going to be able to find their fingerprints then? So what if joeschmo@aol.com makes a change favorable to evil entity "x"? If written subtly enough, such changes should appear to be within the range of standard dispute on any controversial issue. Individuals in any organization can also go home and add edits based on their own sense of loyalty to the outfit they work for. They will be protecting their employer and still getting their feelings off their chest.

Shy of the sudden birth of total human honesty on the planet, the only protection Wikipedia can have is, as at present, a vigilant user community who will ferret out such self interested entries and quickly correct them.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Flickr Foto Of The Day

Originally uploaded by oneblink3
Simple and intriguing image of steps at water's edge.


No Miracle Will Revive John From Cincinnati

In the midst of the ten episodes of David Milch's "John From Cincinnati" on HBO the young and pure Shawn Yost, boy surfing genius, is paralyzed in a surfing accident. He is subsequently made miraculously whole through the kiss of a parrot.

No parrot-looking agent of God will save Milch's show from the wrath of HBO executives, who have just canceled it after one brief season.

When the show began I wrote that I could not make a judgment about it after three episodes. It was clear that only a full devotion of one's attention could discern the meaning of the program, if the meaning was in fact discernible.

This program was unique in television history. It was apparently intended to not be understood by viewers. Characters routinely communicated in the ass backwards syntax unique to David Milch. That was survivable. Those of us who have stuck with Milch since his "NYPD Blues" days had come to understand Milchspeak, even if we knew no actual human beings who spoke that way. The real problem with understanding the drama was that Milch abandoned the ancient tradition of drama of having stories reveal over time the meaning intended by the author. Instead we were treated to a conglomeration of characters who each had their own interesting weirdnesses. These people all seemed entranced by the central Yost family and by each other to the extent that they disengaged from whatever their "normal" life was to become observers and commentators on the events that began to unfold once the curious John of the title arrived on the scene. They were viewers along with us.

This cavalier attitude towards the audience's capacity to understand the flow of the drama reached its peak in the final episode. As someone who has scene all the episodes at least once, I felt like I had been suddenly awakened in Lithuania with only a rudimentary understanding of the language. What the fuck were these people talking about? This was not drama that sought to represent the communication between human beings in the world. It was something other. An exposition of the underlying concepts behind the show without any attempt to have that meaning flow from the show and its expression in the lives of the viewers.

Exhibit One: Here is part of the script chosen on the HBO website about the show to illustrate the depth and wonder of the show and the mind of David Milch:

The scene in which Linc (Luke Perry), Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and John (Austin Nichols) buy an El Camino from the Dealer (Peter Jason) at the Cherry Oldies car lot is probably the most important puzzle-solving moment of the season. It's not my place to provide a line-by-line interpretation, but I can say this: If you sensed that the car-buying sequence provides some clues about why John has come to Imperial Beach -- and about the show's fundamental cosmology and intent -- trust your instincts. Here's a transcript, with narrative from the original script:


Linc and Jake and John with the owner/operator of Cherry Oldies Used Car Sales. The Dealer's appearance invokes P.T. Barnum's trustworthiness, and his manner Chicken Little's hurried angst --

DEALER: I feel that you boys are ready for this Camino ....

LINC: (Includes Jake) Between the two of us we own more cars than you have on this lot. My guess is that your feeling's probably right.

Linc meant to put the Dealer off his pitch and thereby abbreviate their business; instead the Dealer bridles --

DEALER: That's not what I mean by ready – number of vehicles owned.

Jake and Linc tag-team their message of impatience --

JAKE: What do you mean, Pops?

LINC: We got to, uh, boogie.

The Dealer comes over their top --

DEALER: Oh, so I've got to know what I mean before I can have a feeling. Do I have to know that you'll understand me? Do you have to know you'll understand before you'll listen?

Which appears to put Jake in a different, passive state --

DEALER (to Linc): Twenty-five cars between you -- you should've let me sit down before you told me. I got that many dealerships in each of that many sectors, and brands on goddamn franchise. I've got to boogie, me.

John indicates the Dealer, in whose rhythms and accents he reproaches Linc and Jake for their failure to take the Dealer's premise on its face --

JOHN: He feels you're ready for the Camino.

Where Jake's gone, Linc has now gone too --

DEALER (to John) You're off-line now, Country.

JOHN: I don't know Butchie instead.

DEALER: (To Linc and Jake, re John) How's he for high-performance? And he ain't who's worst-underpowered.

If the Dealer had suspenders he'd flex them to indicate who he means --

DEALER: Intrusions, evanescences – I'm a shepherd without crook or understanding. Fits and stops and starts. Waves and ripples and ramifications. Busted knee, mother-son handjob .... Christ, Jesus Christ Jesus Christ.

The Dealer's tight smile is not fully persuasive --

DEALER: Crosses and shoulders to bear 'em.

He smacks his hand on the El Camino --

DEALER: El Camino, fifteen thousand, as is.

Linc and Jake have regained their faculties --

LINC: Is it gassed?

JOHN: F**king-A right it's gassed Linc.

As John puts on the counter the fifteen thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills which has materialized in his pocket the Dealer's stern gaze goes to Linc --

DEALER: You and your twenty-five cars. Circle and line on the wall, and zeros and goddamned ones, is what to turn the both of your gifts to --

The Dealer's "both" appears to include Jake --

DEALER: -- and not one damn minute to waste.

JOHN: Ragheads are going to get themselves eradicated.

DEALER: (vigorously interrupting John) Country, I took you off-line. (calling off camera, re El Camino) Manuel, get a cage on this thing.

John leans over the hood of the El Camino and employs the entirety of his wingspan to offer it a hug. Off which --
If you agree that the scene is difficult to comprehend, imagine it devoid of the stage directions which speak to the motivations of some characters. The Dealer was never introduced to the viewer before this scene, yet he mentions things known only to John and other characters, but not to Linc and Jake, to whom he is speaking. John's lines are repetitions of lines from previous episodes and characters. Yet we as viewers are being asked to pull all of this detritus together and at some point make sense of it.

What is obvious is that John represents some higher power who is, for unknown reasons, attempting to intervene in the life of this beach community. We are left to learn from the HBO website why Milch thinks intervention is necessary:

What makes the danger of ethnic cleansing so much more acute in contemporary times, and one of the things I want to engage in this series, is the extent to which we now reside in virtual space, and the homicidal impulse that's generated by the violation of our virtual space. After the planes flew into the World Trade Center, we were subjected to the stimuli of those images in our virtual space over and over and over again. And because of the way we're set up physiologically, we experience those as continuous ongoing attacks. They predispose us to a violence toward the people whom we take as the perpetrators, because we can't individuate. And because of the way we receive information, we identify the attackers as Ragheads. Our willingness to respond in a genocidal fashion, I think, is not to be underestimated, and that's one of the reasons that this postulated force from elsewhere [John] has dispatched these various miracles – to arouse the recognition that the apocalypse is upon us.
So the WTC is brought down and the homicidal impulse of Americans is unleashed, presumably in Afghanistan and Iraq, against all followers of Islam. It would seem that this sin is what Milch is attempting to redeem us from. Forgive me, but from my perspective the most homicidal of impulses has been unleashed by terrorists and the warring parties in Iraq against the innocents of that sorry place. Perhaps Milch would argue that the violent bombings in Iraq are the product of repeated viewings by the perpetrators of the violence of American soldiers on Aljazeera TV. Surely the failure of the United States to provide sufficient forces to create security makes us culpable for some of that violence as well. But where is the genocidal impulse and behavior? Do you feel it? I don't. No one I know expresses such feelings. Yes, somewhere in the mass of electronic communication ("the zeros and ones in Cass' camera,"as Milch has John express it) there have been hateful hopes on the periphery of our society for the death of massive numbers of Muslims, but where is the march to genocide? Where are the massive death camps and the necessary mechanisms of that horrid enterprise? They don't exist outside Milch's mind.

For me, this is why the series failed. Milch could not communicate what he wanted us to hear. When he finally said it in another forum, what he was saying was weird, to put it kindly. Milch himself, in an interview with Tavis Smiley said in response to Smiley asking if television was the right medium for Milch,

Absolutely. I believe absolutely I am properly employed in television, because when you're as - I don't want to say crazy, but when you're the way I am and you have been successful, you embody the mystification of the businessman, the paradox of the businessman in dealing with the creative people.

Which is, I don't know what they're doing, they're children, they're idiots, you don't know what they're going to give you - and they leave me alone. Whether they're going to keep leaving me alone is always the question, (laughter) but better they leave me alone than the doctors.


One crystal clear aspect of the show was the performance of Ed O'Neill, pictured above. O'Neill of "Married With Children" fame, was solid, engaging and moving in every episode, especially the last. His character's inability to accept or adapt to the death of his wife was consistently touching and understandably human.

Finally, HBO has no one to blame but itself. In the interview with Smiley, Milch blows apart the previously agreed upon bullshit about "Deadwood" having been ended via mutual agreement.

Whether we choose to or not is up to us, and so why surfers? Surfers are because my show - "Deadwood" was canceled, inexplicably to me. The suggestion...The suggestion was made to me, why don't you do a show about surfers? Young, masculine, that's the demographic. Can you do that and have it engage your own spirit? "John From Cincinnati."

So Milch justifiably harbored anger at HBO. But why did he choose to inflict it on the rest of us?

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Ricky Gervais African Appeal, Sort Of

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for posting this absolutely brilliant Ricky Gervais piece. Please be sure to stick with it all the way.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

1998 The Warmest Year? - Not So Fast

Some of us just get a visceral feeling of aversion in the presence of orthodoxy. So, when all debate about the question of human causation of global warming is declared over, I, for one, wonder how long it will be until one should expect the Spanish Inquisition of the Green Era.

For us, today's short note on the NY Times' website contains some heartening news. It reports that NASA, after questions were raised by a blogger about their data, has quietly corrected the data set which purportedly proved that 1998 was the hottest year on record. It turns out that 1934 is now the warmest year.

For those unable to crack the Times' TimesSelect firewall before it soon comes a'tumblin' down, here is the "Opinionator" piece in its entirety.

You just thought you were sweating? Among global warming Cassandras, the fact that 1998 was the “hottest year on record” has always been an article of faith. Stephen McIntyre, who runs the Climateaudit blog was always puzzled by some gaps he saw in the raw data provided by NASA that supported the claim (data compiled in part by James Hansen, the climate scientist who has long accused the Bush administration of trying to “silence” him). McIntyre says he has “reverse engineered” the data to find NASA’s algorithm, discovered that a Y2K bug played havoc with some of the numbers, and notified the space agency.

Michael Asher at DailyTech explains the fallout:

NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as recordbreaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II. Anthony Watts has put the new data in chart form, along with a more detailed summary of the events.

The effect of the correction on global temperatures is minor (some 1-2% less warming than originally thought), but the effect on the U.S. global warming propaganda machine could be huge.

One piece of bad, er...corrected, data does not disprove the entire global warming catechism, but it does surely indicate that the proponents of this concept have arrived first at their conclusion on faith and then sought, unquestioningly, to compile every piece of data that supported their position. Environmentalism is not a corpus of understandings that emerged from a thorough study of all the available information, finally coming to a painful understanding of the scope and etiology of the problem. Rather it is a political instinct that finds humans to be the inferior animals that have befouled paradise, led by corporate greedmeisters.

That, at least, is my belief about the theology at present. I prefer to keep the debate open and to oppose Torquemada, in his current reincarnation as Al Gore, when he uses his full politician's kit of persuasions to convince us otherwise. Hopefully, reports such as this will provide the fuel to sustain some level of environmental agnosticism.

Update: There may have been less than meets the eye in this rearrangement of data. Further analysis here and here would seem to indicate that the reversals in the position of 1934 and 1998 were quite small and were only in the US. Worldwide the more recent years are in fact still the warmest. Given the constant circulation of the atmosphere, worldwide figures would seem to be the only relevant ones. In general, skepticism still seems the healthiest attitude to adopt, especially regarding the dire consequences predicted and the current almost total absence of actual applicable solutions.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tommy Makem - RIP

Yesterday we lost the great Tommy Makem. Tommy and the Clancy Brothers revived Irish music in America in the 60's. Previously Irish music was identified as the maudlin Danny Boy and Mother McCrea type of early 20th century music hall crap aimed at the homesick Irish audiences in America. Tommy and the Clancys let us understand that there was a full array of glorious tunes that emerged over the centuries.

This clip features Tommy telling a story and singing a song from Northern Ireland. I choose to remember his great good humor, exemplified by this piece.

His strong baritone, with its pronounced vibrato, enabled him to convey both joy and sorrow with his voice. Follow some of the other links from YouTube, particularly the one called Roddy McCorley for a fuller sample of the group's songbook.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Codoleezza Rice And Possible Opportunity In The Middle East

Reuters is reporting that Secretary of State Rice has obtained preliminary support from the Saudis for a new peace conference between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government.

As I discussed in a recent post, the fissure between Hamas and Fatah, now a geographic as well as a philosophical gap, presents a unique opportunity for Israel, with the support of the Quartet and the Sunni states in the region to institute a partial peace with Israel that will allow all parties to focus their energies on counteracting Iran's rising influence in the region. For a longer exposition of this concept, see Thomas Barnett's discussion of Sara Kass' WSJ piece on the topic, and Mark Helprin's NY Times OpEd piece.

Photo: AP

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

Brasserie Balzar
Originally uploaded by mseidman
Ah, to be in Paris as Autumn approaches.

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Why The Press Still Doesn't Get It

James Fallows

In February, 1996 James Fallows wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly entitled "Why Americans Hate The Media." That piece is as true today, if not in fact truer, than the day it was published. Here are some key quotes:

The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may actually reduce it, by hammering home the message that issues don't matter except as items for politicians to fight over. Some politicians in Washington may indeed view all issues as mere tools to use against their opponents. But far from offsetting this view of public life, the national press often encourages it. As Washington-based talk shows have become more popular in the past decade, they have had a trickle-down effect in cities across the country. In Seattle, in Los Angeles, in Boston, in Atlanta, journalists gain notice and influence by appearing regularly on talk shows—and during those appearances they mainly talk about the game of politics.
And this:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.

Fallows' writing is dotted with brilliant examples of the time and is well worth a read. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link.

The horrifying thing is that nothing has changed. In fact, current journalistic practices are even more attuned to the pure political fight than they were eleven years ago. Witness our endless Presidential campaign. A full year and a half ahead of the election we are treated to incessant speculation about the success or failure of each subtle political move and the likelihood of the election of this or that candidate, even potential Presidential/Vice Presidential combinations are the subject of endless polling and speculation. In the current crucial debate over what to do in Iraq there is virtually zero coverage of the details and possible outcomes of the various options. Everything focuses on the political game. Who is taking sides and which side are they on, as if there were really only two, with Bush or against Bush.

Over the ensuing decade the number of sources for such gamesmanship have expanded greatly. First, we have met the new enemies of truth, and it is us, the bloggers. It is virtually impossible to find a widely read blog today that focuses on the details of the issues. Almost all delight in declaring wins and losses in todays round of the only battle that interests most political junkies, the next election cycle. Blogs report poll results, supporting articles, news developments, but only those which support the bloggers' view of the fight. The battleground is littered with ad hominem attacks and almost devoid of insightful policy argument.

As for the so called Main Stream Media, the Sunday talk shows, the incessant arguing heads of the cable news networks, it seems to have only gotten worse. Look at Chris Matthews, for example. One can almost actually see Matthews' skin crawl when a guest dares to go two sentences into an explanation of any policy position. Matthews is the prototypical political junkie and former operative. Like a Ritalin-free adolescent with ADHD, he immediately silences any such "silly" responses to cut to the chase, and the chase is always that Bullitt-like run down the hilly streets of America toward the final car crash we call elections. Even the Grey Lady, the nation's newspaper of record is a major sinner in this arena. For well over the last decade the typical NY Times story about any policy battle uses two or three paragraphs to briefly define the details of the issue under debate and the following 20 paragraphs to report on the outcomes or likely effects of the various players and their positions in the arena of the political battle, be it an election campaign or a congressional vote. If you want to learn details about the nuances of health care or immigration, the Times will not be your source. My only criticism of Fallows' article is he failure to note the Times as a major practitioner of the very brand of journalism he decries. In fact, the Times' influence provides an excuse to lesser purveyors. After all, if it is good enough for the Times, then...

As Fallows notes, the effect of this brand of journalism is cynicism, if not outright hostility to the journalistic profession. Worse than that, though, is the learned response to such "news" coverage. Many abandon the news altogether or focus on the latest exploits of the latest Hollywood trash queen. Others conclude that the process is really all crap and games, as portrayed by the pundits. The correlation with the shrinking size of the electorate unmistakable. Screw it, let's watch John Stewart. At least he knows what he is saying is bullshit. And we might get a laugh out of it.

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