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Archive for September, 2011

Endgame.


To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.” Also from last week, R.E.M. hangs it up after 31 years (notwithstanding a greatest hits album, to be released in November.)

The official site has been keeping up with the various encomiums and remembrances on the web. For my part, here’s the list of my 50 favorite R.E.M. songs that I posted in 2005, along with the R.E.M. archives and reviews of Around the Sun and Accelerate. To be honest, I feel like the band has been flirting with U2-covering-themselves territory on the last two albums, but, as a whole, I’ll stand up for their often-maligned later work — Up in particular.

Growing up in the South in the 80’s and 90’s, R.E.M. was ubiquitous. I remember Life’s Rich Pageant accompanying elementary school hayrides, everyone wearing their “Turn You Inside Out” concert tees to school in 8th grade, and crooning “Losing My Religion” with what passed for my high-school band at GSSM. To many of us down in “South Carolina-ravaged South Carolina,” they — and the nearby Athens, Georgia scene — represented a smart, cosmopolitan, and activist left that was still distinctively rooted in the South. Basically, they proved that being southern and being progressive were by no means mutually exclusive.

When I got to college, R.E.M. let their hair down, shook off the earnest stylings of Out of Time and Automatic for the People and decided to release a Monster. It, along with the Beastie’s Ill Communication, are basically the reasons I spent my early sophomore year shorn. (This was taken a few months later.)

And in November of 2004, a few days after Dubya was re-elected, I caught REM as the Garden, where, for the first and only time, they opened with “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” It summed up the moment, precisely.

So, RIP guys, and thanks for the memories and all the songs. Given the sad occasion, here, once again, is arguably their saddest and best.

Roll Over Einstein? Not so fast.


‘We tried to find all possible explanations for this,’ the report’s author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration told BBC News on Thursday evening. ‘We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t.
When you don’t find anything, then you say “well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this”.’

As broke everywhere last week, CERN appears to find evidence of neutrinos moving faster than light(!) — time travel possible which would, well, basically rewrite the laws of physics and make. (See what I did there? Anyway, kind of a big deal!)

Fermilab is currently trying to reproduce the results, but for now, the scientific community is, shall we say, skeptical. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think it will be perceived in retrospect as an embarrassment that this claim received so much publicity–the inevitable consequence of posting a preprint on the Web.

Update: Sorry, aspiring Marty McFlys: As expected, rumors of relativity’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Here’s the rub: “[T]he distance that the neutrinos had to travel in their reference frame is longer than the distance that the neutrinos had to travel in our reference frame, because in our reference frame, the detector was moving towards the source.” Thus, thte experiment “helps to reinforce relativity rather than question it.

Act I: Farewell. Act II: Arrival.


We decided to walk around and for a moment we were like, ‘Are we in Toronto?’ We covered most of downtown in an hour. But as the days went on, we realized that there is great food, it’s very eclectic, and the vibe is quite funky.

Picking up the baton from the NYT, who covered their imminent departure back in August, New Zealand’s Dominion Post checks in with Gill and Ethan on their new (zealand) digs. “Murphy’s family visited New Zealand a few years ago and were charmed by it another factor in the couple choosing to come. They had serious talks about it, though ‘and thought’, says Murphy, ‘about how we felt, individually and together, professionally and personally. A big driver is that it’s a naturally beautiful country, and then coming here and seeing the potential of dance.‘”

It’s a Sick World Sometimes.


Maybe he’s retiring, maybe it’s just a sabbatical. (And, either way, he still has Haywire in the can and Magic Mike, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a Liberace biopic on his plate, not to mention second unit work on The Hunger Games.) Still, as the crisp, dark, and intelligent Contagion once again makes clear, Hollywood will lose one of its most interesting working directors when Steven Soderbergh decides to hang up the clapperboard.

Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009’s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.

Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)

As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.

There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.

Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.

World of Enzymecraft | Taming the Dragon.


Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.” Score one for spatial reasoning: Using the game Foldit, online gamers manage to decipher a enzyme structure that has eluded scientists for a decade — in three weeks. “Cracking the enzyme ‘provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs’, says the study, referring to the medication to keep people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) alive.

On the subject of HIV, it looks like the enemy of our enemy is our friend: In a stunning feat of gene therapy, scientists have used a disabled version of HIV to successfully defeat leukemia. “Mr. Ludwig’s doctors have not claimed that he is cured — it is too soon to tell — nor have they declared victory over leukemia on the basis of this experiment, which involved only three patients…But scientists say [this] may signify a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer…In essence, the team is using gene therapy to accomplish something that researchers have hoped to do for decades: train a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.

Stations of the Crossword.


Every crossword in the Times is a collaboration between the puzzle-maker and the puzzle editor. On average, about half the clues are mine. I may edit as few as five or ten percent of the clues, or as many as 95 percent for someone who does a great puzzle but not great clues. Why accept a puzzle when I’m going to edit 95 percent of the clues? Well, if someone sends me a great puzzle with an excellent theme and construction — you want fresh, interesting, familiar vocabulary throughout the grid — I feel it would be a shame to reject it on account of the clues, because I can always change them myself

In the Atlantic, NYT crossword editor Will Shortz briefly explains the techniques of his craft. “Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” You don’t? That’s a bit elitist, isn’t it? (Apparently, I’m not the only person to think so.)

Finds Along the Frontier.


In a teleconference, Kaltenegger said that the planet is at the warm edge of its star’s habitable zone, as if ‘standing next to a bonfire.’ That means the planet would require a lot of cloud cover — which reflects starlight — to keep the surface cool enough to prevent any water from boiling, she said.

Gliese 581g, meet HD85512b. Among the 50 new planets astronomers announced on Monday is a “Super-Earth” that lies within the inhabitable zone and could hold water. “The new super-Earth is 3.5 times the mass of Earth.

And, how are we going to get there, you ask? While DARPA works its mojo, NASA announces its most recent plans for a successor to the Shuttle: A new Space Launch System. “Administration officials said the new rocket system…would be the most formidable launch system deployed since the Saturn V…The new rocket coupled with a deep-space crew capsule already under development should enable an un-crewed test flight of the exploration system in 2017 and a crewed test flight by 2021, officials said.” If history is any guide, you’ll probably want to tack a few years on to those dates.

While we wait, here’s another interesting cosmic find to ponder: Astronomers have found an honest-to-goodness twin-sunned Tatooine in Kepler 16b, 200 light years away. “‘This is an example of another planetary system, a completely different type that no one’s ever seen before,’ Doyle said. ‘That’s why people are making a big deal out of this.’

Showdown in Gotham.


Resolved: Chris Nolan is a sloppy action director. For the prosecution: film critic Jim Emerson, who dissects the second-act car chase in The Dark Knight to explain his reasoning. For the defense: Torque director Joseph Kahn, who similarly dissects Emerson’s essay: “This is old film school thought. It’s not even oversimplification, it’s wrong. It stems from the technological origin of silent filmmaking.

All in all, an interesting debate. In terms of the macro-arguments about film, I find myself leaning toward Kahn: After hundred years of film-going, I think audiences are savvier about the basic syntax than Emerson suggests. But I also agree with Emerson that Nolan is not a particularly impressive action director,and that his action sequences do feel choppy and confusing at times. This is great for something like Batman Begins, when Bats is trying to sow confusion, but otherwise not as satisfying as, say, the truck chase in Raiders.

Ten Years After.


You know what the world really doesn’t need right now? Another 9/11 retrospective. So, in terms of my thoughts on the recent tenth anniversary, I’ll just point you to the blog entries from that time, the 9/11 category here, and Paul Simon’s haunting, Dylanesque rendition of “The Sound of Silence” from the anniversary memorial.

It was a terrible day ten years ago, to be sure. But, I’m with Paul Krugman and The Onion. The horrors of that day can’t justifiy away torture, wars-of-choice, or any of the other ugly facets of the the low, dishonest decade that has followed.

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