Books, culture, fishing, and other games

April 28, 2004

Kudos to Netflix and Notes on Flicks

I've succumbed. I'd read about Netflix somewhere online, but the idea never stuck. But my latest computer does have a dvd, and messing around with it I discovered it's actually not bad for viewing, and then I bought some microwave popcorn and right there on the back of the box was an offer for a free trial, so I tried.

I'm hooked.

From a marketing perspective the offer on the popcorn box was rather brilliant. There is no better mass-market product association to movies that occurs to me. And with single servings, and the convenience of microwaves, anyone who eats popcorn will go through a lot of packages and see a lot of adds. Sooner or later in a moment of "there's nothing good on TV or cable" weakness, we're apt to say, "okay, I'll try it." With the convenience of modern portable viewers dvds are a great take-along. And the Netflix system of no overdue movies works great. Once you do get around to watching them, you have the mailer to return them, and the next one is on its way in a couple days. Meanwhile you have two (or more for an upgrade in monthly fees) behind that waiting.

Aside from all the coolness of the system they've created, I'm suddenly back watching movies. Don't get the wrong idea, I love movies. But I don't have a television here in DC, and don't particularly want one (darned distraction!) or its tendency to force schedules into compliance, and I hate going to the movies by myself and have no one I want to drag along here, so I haven't been watching movies. This means I haven't seen any of the latest crop, and I'm not filling any gaps in my rather gap-py movies-watched history.

So I'm rewatching some classics, exploring more foreign flicks, and catching up on a few I feel I should have seen. Last night it was Akiro Kurasawa's Hidden Fortress. I have seen a lot of his movies, but not all. I aim to rewatch all I have seen, and catch the ones I've missed, because he's... well, he's Kurosawa. Once nice thing about seeing them on dvd is all the additional matter that turns up. Last night it was in interview with Lucas. I knew from my one class in film and my work in classics that Lucas was a big Kurosawa fan (the classics link runs through Campbell to Lucas and back out to Kurosawa). Last night's interview informed me of a new little bit of trivia I'm having fun sharing with my friends in Star Wars Galaxies. Lucas says the two droids in the original were inspired by the two peasants in Hidden Fortress.

One thing Lucas found very interesting in Hidden Fortress (which ranks down about 4th or 5th in his list of favorite Kurosawa flicks) is the choice Kurosawa made to tell the story from the lowest perspective. The story opens and closes focused on the two peasant friends Tohei and Matahachi. They occupy a significant portion of the screen, and the overall theme of the struggle of greed versus trust and friendship is the major theme of the movie. The movie narrative thread from which the name is taken is the near destruction of a feudal clan which is left with only a single 16-year-old princess to insure its survival, and her flight through enemy territory with her faithful general (played by Toshiro Mifune) to safely with an allied clan. The princess is forced to play a mute peasant. As a result she learns what it is to be a peasant, learns of their lives, while in the meanwhile the peasants in the small party learn nobility and those who would have laid down their lives as mere feudal duty, reach a place where they would do it out of love.

Lucas compares the story to The Prince and the Pauper. But that's by no means an exact analogy. It may derive from Henry V. There the young prince loves to slum and the opening and ending focus (as I recall) is also in lowborn soldiers and knaves. It is his intimate knowledge of his soldiers that leads him to the place where he can inspire them to fight impossible odds in his cause and triumph. There too peasant things overcome noble systems. The longbow, until then a peasant weapon, conquers the French knights. Considering Kurosawa's common recycling of Shakespeare's plays, I suspect a bit of review of the plays will suggest others from which the general escorting the young princess through enemy territory to safety will emerge. Twelvth Night springs to mind, but it's not an exact fit, I think.

Watching Hidden Fortress made me want to watch Seven Samurai again immediately. But I think I will wait. I have Sanjuro in hand, and a couple more behind it on my list.

My first batch, though, was Sex and Lucia, Much Ado About Nothing and... oh, a mistake. I didn't read the fine print and got a supplemental disk rather than the movie itself. The material was fine, but I had no context for it.

Sex and Lucia is a very interesting film. It hit on some hot button themes I did not expect it to: constructing narrative and its impact on how we view reality, for one. If you have a reasonable tolerance for nudity and sexual situations, it's a very thought-provoking movie. I will see it again once it's soaking in a bit. It's a film that begs a serious essay.

And Much Ado cannot have enough ado made about it. Kenneth Branagh does a great job with his adaptations of Shakespeare to film. I've liked all of them immensely so far. I had only seen it once before, so hadn't caught some of the actors in supporting roles. In this one Michael Keaton plays Constable Dogsberry and is wonderful. He is perfectly over the top, as the clowns should be. The scene where he and his sidekick "ride" off on imaginary horses is priceless.

Netflix's service has been better than advertized, which in this day and age of "customer service" is pretty amazing. My turnaround has been 3-4 days. I don't watch a movie every night, but I almost can with the basic package as long as I do my part to get the watched disk in the mail the next morning. The combination of great U.S.P.S. service and fast Netflix turnaround, along with the waiting list software on the web site to let me build a queue with a large pad of movies, makes the whole process quick and easy.

This is a rave. I don't rave about systems and service easily. The bad part of this is that it makes everyone else look very inadequate. Amazon looks anaemic, and they are not bad. They just don't turn orders around anywhere near as fast as does Netflix. GoGamer.com, my online source for games, is darned good, beating Amazon by days. But they aren't up to Netflix's standards, though they do come close.

The only part of the Netflix system I am not impressed with is the recommendations system. It's a great idea; it lacks the necessary granularity and intelligence to be truly useful. For one thing, it needs to differentiate between how "good" the movie was in a production sense, and how much I like the type or subject of the movie. It does not appear to be doing this from the recommendations I'm getting. And I have rated about 100 movies I've seen in the past just to give it a chance to learn. I slammed a couple fantasy movies that were plain bad in their execution, but I love reasonably well done ones. So now I see no recommended fantasy movies. I tend to get a lot of chick flicks because I like a lot a couple flicks that are classified as such. Those are exceptions. Oh, I find most of them bearable, but I wouldn't want them elevated to recommended status. What recommends the few I really like is that they are great movies per se, not their genre. I want to be able to say "this is a GREAT movie" and "I'm not really interested in this type of movie" and have it make sense of that. So, it could then offer me any movie that is achieving a net rating of "great" from critics or the general viewership, but leave out anything below that in the genres that hold no real attraction to me. It's not an impossible system to code, but it's not yet coded there. They are not gathering enough information from me to be able to make the distinction. In theory, they could interpolate from the database of all movies I've rated. In practice that's a nontrivial task. It becomes simpler and simpler with the more measurements they can accumulate on each movie.

It will be interesting to see how they grow and learn. And I plan to be there to see it.

Posted by dan at 11:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 23, 2004


Blame Lynn at Reflections in d minor for this. It does amount to a sort of bragging, I suppose. On the other hand it got me to actually post, so that's something. She's embarrassed by her score against this list. I'm not sure it's a measure of anything so much as one's time spent reading. If you love reading, and read a lot, you are sooner or later going to check off some of these. Of course, those of us with liberal arts degrees, especially grad degrees in literature, should score higher than most people do. and those of us who have been around abit longer than others have that as an advantage too. Reading takes time.

I admit I have made an effort to to survey the canon. It's partly because I find some real gems, but probably has more to do with wanting to be widely read. I hate being ignorant.

I'm going to tamper with the system a little here. The idea is to check off (or bold or otherwise highlight) the work read, but that misses a lot in that some of us would argue the importance of some of these works without arguing the importance of having read something the writer wrote. For those cases where I have read one more more other works by an author I will put an asterisk in front of the title listed. This applies whether or not I read the one listen (since I am bragging...)

For example, I've read several of Saul Bellow's novels. I have never kicked into "read them all mode" as I often do when I have access and fall hard for the first work of a writer that I read. The converse to this is that some of the titles I do highlight will represent a small fraction of that writer that I have read. Dickens is a perfect example, as is Austen. I've read them all. I'm ashamed (oops, see, that's worse than embarrassed, isn't it?) to admit I haven't read all of Shakespeare's plays. I think. I haven't yet made a concerted effort to ensure that I have, at least. So in all of these cases the works by these authors will have an asterisk in front of them. They will be bolded if I read that specific work.

I do find myself reading less fiction and more non-fiction lately. And, of course, a lot more of my reading happens online on blogs. But I still have a stack of "to be read" in my nearly empty apartment here, with a stack of "to be shelved" (once I have bookshelves) beside it that I have finished. I'm working my way through Caesar's Women, one of Colleen McCullough's 1000-pager historical novels at the moment, and have a translation of Machado de Assis's Quincas Borba I found on sale waiting behind it. Of course, I should read the latter in Portuguese, and maybe I will, but the English was on sale and it was right there...

Reading Caesar's Women right now has been interesting. Over on Powerline The Big Trunk has been citing Cicero's orations against Cataline as contrast to the current controversy surrounding the 9/11 Commission and Gorelick's presence as a commissioner. Having just read those in novelized form bring those comments on that blog and the actual current events much more into focus. If you're interested, they are: second and third. (I think there's a first, and there is a lot more commentary on the topic, but these two were on the main page and explicitly reference Cicero.)

See? Literature does enrich life.

And finally, my bragroll.

Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
*Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
*Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Brontė, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Brontė, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
*Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
*Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
*Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
*de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
*Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
*Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
*Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
*Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
*Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
*Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
*Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
*Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
*Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
*Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
*James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
*James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
*Marquez, Gabriel Garcķa - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
*Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
*Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
*Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
*Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
*Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
*Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
*Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
*Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
*Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
*Sophocles - Antigone
*Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
*Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
*Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
*Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
*Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
*Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
*Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
*Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
*Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
*Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

Darn! Still a lot of gaps. Excuse me, I need to get back to reading.

Posted by dan at 10:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 08, 2004

Does Iraq Deserve to be Free?

I've been watching the news and reading books pertaining to the Iraq situation. The most recent was What Went Wrong? : The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis. I wish I could say it was illuminating, but, while it was well-written and a useful history, I didn't come away with much new in understanding of how Islamic cultures have ended up where they are today. That is not to say that I don't recommend the book to those with litle historical knowledge of the expansion and retraction of Islam as a political movement and as a cultural foundation. One thing the book makes clear is that the two are not inectricably linked. Turkey has been fairly successful as a secular government while remaining mostly culturally Islamic. Of course, the extreme Islamic regimes would argue this point.

But I keep coming back to one basic question about Iraq, and similar cultures and/or countries. Do they deserve democracy?

For various and complicated reasons, we, as a coalition of countries, are seeking to "gift" Iraq with the opportunity to practice democracy by removing a tyranny they accepted. We seem to implicitly assume that the Iraqis, in fact, that everyone, deserve their own representative government. Yet a significant (how large it is hard to determine) portion of the Iraqi "people" (Iraqi isn't exactly one people) are not even a little grateful.

Growing up in the Amazon in the midst of poverty (which made me feel rich, though by American standards we were barely into middle class) I learned the lesson that people do not appreciate things they do not somehow earn. Or, at least, they very rarely do. That is not to say that we should not practice charity because it is not appreciated. We should, however, practice wisdom combined with charity. Instead of just giving that sick person the medicine they needed to cure their illness, my Dad would insist they make some sort of payment. He began this policy when he learned that if he just gave them the medicine they didn't take it. Their thinking seemed to be that if he could just give it away it must have no value. Perhaps this was a cultural thing, or a cross-cultural issue, or perhaps it's something so basic in our natures that we don't really see the extent to which it operates in our own lives. Why do we value the come-from-behind victory against impossible odds more than the blow out where one sports team simply out matches the other by orders of magnitude? I know, speaking for myself, when I feel I earned something it has more value to me. It gains an intangible preciousness that goes beyond any intrinsic value of the thing as event or object. When I move and shed possessions, the things that are never left behind are those I earned with the most pain and effort. Far more objectively valuable things are casually dismissed.

If we accept this as a truth of human nature, what does it say about "gifting" another culture with democracy? America, and other countries with long histories of democracy (long as the history of democracy goes), earned their freedoms and their representative governments mostly through their own expended lives, whether through living to promote their choice of government or through dying to prevent tyranny.

When Patrick Henry said "Give me liberty or give me death," he didn't exactly mean, "free me or kill me," what he meant was "I will be free or I will die trying to live free." His was not an invitation to martyrdom; it was a warning exemplified by the snake that flew on an early flag, "Don't tread on me:" I will bite, I will die fighting before yielding to a foot on my face.

Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure." He did not say only with the blood of patriots, he said with the blood of tyrants too. And that is where Iraq, as a country, failed. It shed the blood of patriots, but it failed to shed the blood of its tyrants. Perhaps it did not have enough patriots to ensure the tyrants' blood was shed. If that is the case from where will come the patriots needed to keep the Liberty Tree healthy in Iraq?

When Jefferson says "blood," I believe he means it. He isn't making a metaphor at that level, he means violence is necessary on occasion, and that some are going to die. I also suspect that he means that tyrants must die, not be expelled, imprisoned or otherwise shoved aside. Tyrants have a nasty way of returning if they are not neutralized permanently. This is a pragmatic position, not one based on revenge or retaliation. Where there is life there is hope, and this applies equally, and perhaps especially since they are so driven to power, to tyrants. Look to France and Napoleon's return for a capital example.

The gift of the coalition, a gift a least some are spurning, or are finding to have no value was a relatively bloodly removal of tyrants. Perhaps, because it was relatively bloodless, the Tree will not have the "manure" it needs to flourish.

The motives of the United States and the coalition in making the gift are not the issue here. They are certainly more complicated than a simple desire to see Iraq become a freer place with a better government, though many of us would love to see that come about.

The question is: does Iraq deserve this gift? Has it done enough to deserve it so that it can accept it and profit from it, or will it be set on a shelf? Will the medicine that might cure Iraq's long illness sit untaken because Iraqis, as a body, cannot accept that it has any value since it was given by another whose motives they suspect?

Iraq needs to prove to itself that it deserves the gift, not to the world. The way it can do this is by sacrificing patriots and tyrants to the tree of liberty. A few tyrants have been removed, more remain. There are Iraqi patriots too, but are there enough? And are they willing to sacrifice, if need be, so that their fellow citizens can live in a better Iraq, or are they more worried about survival?

Posted by dan at 10:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack