30 March 2007

OpenOffice.org 2.2 is Here

Click here for the announcement, click here for more specifics on the new version, and here to download.

And if you're not using OpenOffice.org (and you should be) try this.

25 March 2007

Ghosts Revisited

It must be difficult for artists to wind up as “critical darlings,” adored by the media and a medium-sized cadre of the public – big enough to create buzz, small enough that the total market impact is limited. It must be even worse to be a “critical darling” in the world of contemporary music, which is unique among the arts in its combination of broad audiences, wide-ranging media interest, and commercial pressures.

And so one cannot but have some sympathy for Wilco, the alt-rock / alt-country band that – in an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff among its listeners and critics – decided to see just how edgy they could get with their 2004 album A Ghost Is Born. What that means, in plain terms, is lots of what one might call “noise” crossing through the album. For example, “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” has a few sections of ear-jarring guitar breaking up the vocals, until somewhere around 7:40 into it, the band as a whole seems to coalesce again around a central guitar-and-drums theme – except that a minute later, at 8:40, it’s back to a dominant guitar riff playing mock-punk with our senses all over again. (The song as a whole is close to 11 minutes long.)

The eleventh track, “Less Than You Think,” takes a different approach: with a total length of 15:04, on my first listen I thought my stereo was suddenly channeling The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” or perhaps had been taken over by some Nauman-esque / John Cage experiment. More than 12 minutes of the song consists of a not-quite-silence, which eventually grows into a full-fledged experience of vibrating, crackling background noise. “Wishful Thinking,” while shorter than the other two, also starts with an off-putting cacophony.

Several years later, this album is only now receiving from me the attention it otherwise might have had back in 2004 – the attention I wanted to give, because I wanted not to be one of those Wilco fans pushed away by the intentional effort at breaking through my placid devotion. We can thank the iPod for virtually forcing me to listen when I might not have done so otherwise, because the band succeeded in its effort to startle audiences, and it’s a shame because there is much here to enjoy. “Muzzle of Bees” and “The Late Greats” are both beautiful songs, steeped in the Wilco tradition but still evolutionary steps forward; the same is true of “Wishful Thinking,” once one gets past the introduction. In my less-devout moments, I’ve thought of re-mixing the album myself, using my computer’s sound editors, to create what (in my head) I have renamed A Ghost Is Reborn, editing out all of the noise-nonsense. (I’m not the only one, of course.) And that’s what it is, really, noise-nonsense. I’m on record as writing that I think Being There is a phenomenal album, and it has its cacophonous moments, too – but they are all used to good effect, defining a style that brought country and rock together in the crash of piano and drums. The intent, and the result, was sublimely creative, not alienating.

With Wilco’s new album slated for release in May (and now leaking out, as others have, over the internet several months before official distribution), it is a good time to re-assess the band’s last disc – and to hope for something a little more clear-headed the next time around. We’ll know soon.

14 March 2007

Chips Off The Block

For most of the last two decades or so, Lawrence Block has been known widely as the author of a compelling series of mysteries with the cunning (if reluctant) detective Matt Scudder, or a series of entertaining whodunits with burglar-criminologist Bernie Rhodenbarr. Into that mix add the newer series with hitman Keller, occasional one-off books like Small Town, as well as books of short stories that Block has edited, or others written about the art of writing, and you have a very large collection by an author whose character portraits of his cities, and his constructions of the crimes, are as interesting and compelling as the protagonists themselves. I have more than 70 books in my Block collection; I say that less to brag and more to make the point of just how much Lawrence Block has written, and how much there is to read.

In addition to all of the new(ish) books and series mentioned above, Block’s older – much older – work should not be overlooked, and the recent re-publication of Lucky at Cards is a good opportunity for a quick primer. I would say there are four general categories into which these early books fall. The first are the stories of con men, scams, and love-gone-awry are constants, all tautly-written. Put out by the relatively new publishing company Hard Case Crime, Lucky at Cards is great example, originally published in 1964, a focused novel of noirish deception that includes this terrific paragraph:

“We answered the question in the unmade bed with the lights on and the shades up. The room was on a high floor, so no one could have seen us, but we never thought about that at the time one way or the other. The lovemaking was too fast, too furious, too compulsive. There was deep need and dark hunger, and flesh merging with flesh, and an orchestral swell out of Tschaikovsky [sic] that led to a coda of pure Stravinsky.”

Hard Case has also republished two other early Block books, Grifter’s Game (originally published as Mona) and – one of my all-time favorites – The Girl With the Long Green Heart. The latter incorporates one of the most careful, delicate, and cleverly-executed double-crosses I think I have ever read.

The second category consists of what I call the “ex-” novels: ex-Green Berets in the The Specialists and ex-Special Ops in Such Men Are Dangerous, along with ex-prison inmates in After the First Death, and almost ex-married couples in Deadly Honeymoon. Needless to say, perhaps, but there’s a lot of revenge in these books, and its revenge as it should be, as one wants it to be: heavy-handed and fairly ruthless.

The third category involve different mysteries that never quite got off the ground as a series. That may have been Block’s intention – what do I know! – but these are characters one could imagine having a longer lifespan. Among them are Coward’s Kiss, with Ed London (and originally published as Death Pulls a Doublecross, according to my copy) and You Could Call It Murder, with Roy Markham.

Last but not least are those that I would place (with great pleasure!) in the comic category, everything from the Evan Tanner series to the Chip Harrison books to more one-offs like Ronald Rabbit Is A Dirty Old Man. All of Block’s books have their humorous elements, usually sharp and witty, and reading these it’s easy to see where that comes from. These also have sex very much at their core, from Chip’s charmingly-youthful quests to Evan’s sophisticated, globe-trotting conquests, all of which only make these stories more readable and, certainly, more entertaining.

You can take a look at my library of Lawrence Block here, via LibraryThing – or check out the author’s own website for a complete list by character and category.

09 March 2007

Obama Cross-Promotion

Actually, "promotion" may not be the right word...

My interactions (rather one-sided) with Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign begin here, then go here, and end here (for now). It is not the prettiest picture, but it deserves attention.

05 March 2007

Banking in NYC

The headline, from Curbed:
Storefronting: Stern 'Fronts on UWS, Scoop Grows in Soho, Banks Now Replacing Banks

The reality:
It's all too true. Oh, and their ad campaigns are genius.

04 March 2007

Mistry's Balance

Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance is an intricate exploration of the over-lapping and interconnected lives of a number of Indians, centered around the character of Dina Dalal (née Schroff), in 1975. Mistry weaves back and forth between the then-present moment and the country’s Partition-era past, giving the history of his characters’ families and the events of their lives (and those of their parents and other ancestors), and revealing how these histories shaped the characters’ current personalities, or how certain social expectations and, even, prophecies cast lives in one direction or another.

This is a beautiful book – one of the saddest I have ever read – and Mistry’s characters, their feelings, desires, and emerging philosophies, are tenderly and delicately evoked, which only makes the sad parts of the story that much more tragic. Highly recommended.


One “character” featured throughout is the Indian government – at the time a semi-democratic, corrupt, and agonizingly bureaucratic structure. Much like the current Bush administration, the Indian government of Mistry’s story is committed to using fear as a tool for controlling the people, and to the view (with no evident understanding of the irony, as with the Bush administration) that in order to preserve democratic freedoms and liberties, many freedoms and liberties must be curtailed. Some of the most tragic or terrifying parts of the story come at the hands of government officials, because the government believes it knows best. There are shades here not only of current American political theater, but also of the more widely-known terrors conducted by “modernizing” Chinese and Soviet governments, and of the social and policing policies of the Nazis.

Towards the middle of the book, a discussion about Indian politics takes place, and it seems to me that here Mistry cuts to the core of the issues of democracy and liberty in a way that is as relevant now as it surely was in 1995, when the book was written, or in 1975, when the events of the book took place. And of course, the political discussion is also foreshadowing of some later events. The conversation is between Dina, her friend and tenant, Maneck, and Dina’s brother Nusswan, to whom Dina has come to ask for a loan. Nusswan, a rigid and buffoonish businessman, tries to engage them in a discussion about how important the current state of emergency is for Indian politics and life. Over several pages, Dina and Maneck attempt to play straight to Nusswan’s misplaced sincerity for the government policies. (This effort breaks down, when their sarcasm eventually bursts through.) Three (not contiguous) passages from this chapter stand out as excellent political commentary, and are worth repeating, as follows:

On family planning and rumors of forced sterilization:

“Mutilate. Ha ha ha,” said Nusswan, avuncular and willing to pretend it was a clever joke. “It’s all relative. At the best of times, democracy is a seesaw between complete chaos and tolerable confusion. You see, to make a democratic omelette you have to break a few democratic eggs. To fight fascism and other evil forces threatening our country, there is nothing wrong with strong measures. Especially when the foreign hand is always interfering to destabilize us. Did you know the CIA is trying to sabotage the Family Planning Programme?” (Page 366)

On censorship and the control of truthful information:

“Ah yes, yes,” said Nusswan, at last betraying impatience. “And what’s so terrible about that? It’s only because the government does not want anything published that will alarm the public. It’s temporary – so lies can be suppressed and people can regain confidence. Such steps are necessary to preserve the democratic structure. You cannot sweep clean without making the new broom dirty.” (Page 367)

On the success of the government’s emergency measures:

“The important thing,” said Nusswan, “is to consider the concrete achievements of the Emergency. Punctuality has been restored to the railway system. And as my director friend was saying, there’s also a great improvement in industrial relations. Nowadays, he can call the police in just one second, to take away the union troublemakers. A few good saltings at the police station, and they are soft as butter. My friend says production has improved tremendously. And who benefits from all this? The workers. The common people. Even the World Bank and the IMF approve of the changes. Now they are offering more loans.” (Page 367)


For more information, click here to read Wikipedia’s entry on the book (which also links to some of the Indian political history involved), here for an entry from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, and here for a few notes on the period from The Encyclopedia of World History.