28 August 2010

An Old Fashioned Solution to a New Fangled Problem

Well I've been fiddling with the header on this blog for some time trying to achieve a particular effect: having the viewer feel like he's looking through the plane of his own screen into a startlingly different dimension.  It seemed necessary to tap into paperly metaphors to accomplish this, and so the last few attempts have made use of various ripping and tearing visuals.  You may recall some of these:

But this one came up off the page, rather than sinking into it.  So I pushed it down:

That, of course, looked more like scratching the stuff off the back of a lottery ticket than an a supersubstantial reality busting through the computer screen into your face.  They kept coming up short, and I simply attributed this to my amateur knowledge of Photoshop.

So I looked up my graphic design buddy Dan, a fellow seminarian here at Mundelein, and asked him what he thought.

The conversation went something like this:

[I give a thorough and excessively detailed description of what I was trying to do, lasting approximately five minutes, expecting a fairly complicated answer involving filters, texture palettes, gaussian high pass edge flows, etc.]

Dan:  Why don't you tear up a piece of paper in the way you want it to look and then scan it?

So that's what I did, and what do you know, he was right.

Looking at the final iteration, though, makes me wonder if I was right to put a drop shadow in there.  The shadow makes it look like the supersubstantial reality is just another photograph, flat and lifeless like the gray in front of it.  It's kind of unavoidable given the text in the frame, but still, would it look better without the shadow?  Those of you that care about such things can give some feedback in the combox.  (I thought about putting up a poll but I think that would be ridiculous given the time I've spent on this already.)

Sans drop shadow:  click to enlarge


I had the chance to check out a dozen or so of the Tall Ships that were in Chicago this week, docked at Navy Pier.  It generated some fun photos, which I'll be posting over the next few days and cross-posting at the photoblog (linked at the bottom of the page as well).

Pride of Baltimore

18 August 2010

The Ground Zero Mezquita

One of the first words I learned using the Rosetta Stone program as I prepared for my summer immersion in El Salvador was the word for "mosque."  I was kind of surprised by this, but the Rosetta Stone has a way of inserting words that you'd never think were important into the Level 1 program--words like corcovear.  I couldn't find it in the dictionary, so I asked a number of my Mexican, Colombian, and Peruvian friends what the word meant.  They had no idea.  What business does this program have teaching me words that Mexicans don't even know? I wondered.  Turns out, it's more of a cowboy word--it means "to leap or gambol like an exuberant calf".  The American who had lived in a little Salvadoran village for three years working for the Peace Corps knew the word, but the chilangos had no idea.  Go figure.

Little did I know, mezquita was far more important than I realized at the time.  Fortunately I picked it up pretty quickly.  For one, it sounded much less intimidating than the English equivalent.  "Mosque" is a heavy word in my own tongue, with that long, sonorous "o" that rises in the throat only to end in a hiss and a "thunk", the "q" driving the word into the roof of your mouth like the blade of a guillotine slamming home.  Anglicized Arabic has all those "qu" formulations that look so odd; apparently the "k" just isn't good enough.  It gives the impression that there's something about the word that just doesn't fit in our language.  (At least it doesn't have the guttural apostrophe in there, like Qur'an.)

"Mezquita," however, has a light and playful sound, mostly nasal and dental sounds.  It also distracts, like a mosquito.  The fragrant BBQ seasoning is also called to mind, evoking memories of pleasant gatherings around the grill, smoke pouring from an outdoor oven plump with roasting meats.  This is why I think our current debate about the proposed Ground Zero Mezquita should be conducted in Spanish.  Everyone would be a lot calmer; it's harder to get in an argument while chewing mouthfuls of pulled pork and brushing away the insects on a hot summer's eve.

This occurred to me as I was brainstorming ideas for a thoughtful and measured post about what I thought was going on under the surface of this debate.  But then I realized I have several evaluations to write before the end of my chaplaincy, and expending energy on this question wouldn't put me in a good spot to finish them on time.  Also, the tone of the debate these days--degenerating into ever more shrill imprecations against the opponent's lack of enlightenment/common sense--doesn't invite measured, thoughtful contribution.  There are plenty of other people making them (such as Douthat's column, "Islam and the Two Americas", or Carson Halloway over at Front Porch Republic pointing out the presumably willful deception on the part of our president); why risk falling short and ending up rolling around in the street with the gang-bangers?

Anyway, if this thing doesn't end up getting built, there should  be plenty of other options for the struggling Manhattan Islamic community-builders (the two mezquitas that already exist on Manhattan island only blocks away from Ground Zero presumably aren't on the market just yet):

How about we just drop the "quita" and leave it at "the Ground Zero Mess"?

06 August 2010

A Little More Shine on that Apple

Apparently Steve Jobs sees Apple as having a "moral responsibility" to keep porn off their devices.

What a crazy statement to make this day and age.  To take a clear stand against the destructive presence of pornography in our society is courageous enough--but to assert that any business has any moral responsibility at all beyond the demands of the market is even more so.

Read more about it on LifeSiteNews.com, as well as the original exchange generated through a late-night email volley with a gawker.com columnist.  There's some salty language in there as well as some geeky back and forth about programming platforms but it's worth reading all the way through.  Tate's final comments about the "Orwellian" tone of Jobs' aim to give iPhone users "freedom from porn" is incredibly out of touch--even MTV has run reality shows about the inescapability of porn addiction and the destruction it sows in the lives of its thralls.  The struggle is mainstream, and even if Tate has been fortunate enough not to get addicted to the stuff, there are quite literally millions who have, and who also have the right to enjoy technology that does not feed into their weakness.  Those who disagree can simply choose another phone.  The indignant posturing of these kinds of people is simply ignorant.

I've been attracted to Apple for a while now given their excellent products, but I am really impressed by this little glimpse into what drives the company.

h/t First Thoughts

02 August 2010

Automation=Evil=Must Die.

So after spending an estimated 5,730 hours navigating automated phone menus in an effort to get the trivial pieces of information I’ve needed in various situations throughout my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that automated phone menus are going to be the downfall of our civilization.

It all started with a creative type, probably a liberal arts major-turned consultant who dreamt up the idea of the automated phone menu, allowing business, government offices, and customer service departments worldwide to eliminate call centers in lieu of some low monthly fee to be paid directly to him. 
“Eureka!” he shrieked, knocking over his chair as he leapt to his feet, unsettling the cup of chai tea next to his legal pads of poetry and Great Business Ideas.  “This automated menu could do wonders for businesses, government offices, and customer service departments worldwide, enabling them to reassign high-paid employees taking calls, thereby freeing up all sorts of assets to boost the economy and hyperinflate my bank balances!”

Well, I’m sure that guy did all right for himself, but it’s been one sad story of waste and disappointment for the rest of us ever since.  Just try to estimate how many hours you’ve spent hitting “4” to manage your account, only to be dumped into a dead-end menu that has nothing to offer you in your moment of need and giving you no options to extricate yourself.  * doesn’t work.  # doesn’t work.  *67 doesn’t work.  Repeating obscene phrases at high decibel levels into the earpiece doesn’t work.  All that’s left to you is to end the call and start again, or curse God and die.

I would imagine the ratio of total dollars saved by those who make use of automated menus to total dollars of employee productivity lost while navigating those labyrinthine systems and venting to their coworkers is on the order to 1 to 20.  That’s not even close to what it would be if we factored in property destruction.

Maybe if that lady at the KC, MO Police Tow Lot hadn’t let her phone sit on hold for 25 minutes while toasting marshmallows over a fire fueled by the reams of meaningless paperwork offered in sacrifical homage to the pitiless and cruel Solemn Arbiter of Motor Vehicles by countless millions, I would be a free man today.

Red Man Solo Tour

Red Man has been busy this summer!  Check out a recent collaboration from the IPF cycle at the link below:


Once Twice

The list of films that have made the cut of those worthy to be watched again is pretty short.  Of those films, I only own a handful, and several of those were gifts.  As I sit here and think about it, it’s hard to even justify watching some of those again—why watch when so many more must be sifted?

I suppose since it’s so short, it won’t be too hard to put them down here, in no particular order (though I must admit I’m leaving out the adolescent selections, as they’ve not remained with me into adulthood, and rarely stand up to a more mature scrutiny***):
  • “Master and Commander”—stepping into the lost world of the age of sail, with exquisite cinematography of battle sequences straight out of a Winslow Homer painting
  • “The Thin Red Line”—some have expressed frustration with the ponderous voice-overs, but Malick created something utterly fascinating with the cast of celebrities who fell over one another for bit parts in one of his films.  The intensity of this film is achingly, painfully beautiful.
  • “Punch Drunk Love”—the first serious acting I ever saw Adam Sandler do.  A truly funny film, alternately cross-eyed and sympathetic toward the quirky, neurotic cast.  “I have a love that makes me stronger than you can imagine. . . I would just say ‘that’s that,’ mattress man.”
  • “The Dark Knight”—just watched it again at the beginning of the summer.  While I am more inclined to side with reviewers that suggested it could’ve used some more judicious cutting, I stand by my fascination with this mythical story.
  • “The Big Lebowski”—delight in disorder.
  • “Children of Men”—I was shocked by how powerful this film was for me.
  • “Lonesome Dove”—a made-for-TV adaptation of McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winner.  An epic western that managed to capture the tragic side of the open range and its codes, tinged with glory.
  • “Princess Mononoke”—a Miyazaki anime feature, bizarre and outrageously imaginative, and masterful in the use of silence as the aura of the sacred.
I could go on. . . but the point is, not for much longer.

The most recent entry on this list is entitled, ironically, “Once”.  What I have to say about it won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen it, so I wouldn’t bother reading further if you haven’t—besides, you should already be making your way to your Netflix queue to get ahold of it. 

I was first turned on to this film by Barb Nicolosi’s review (back when her blog for her work with the screenwriting guild Act One was still up and running).  The soundtrack proved to be the hook for her, and so it has continued to be for me.  Piping it through my stereo last week inspired me to return to this little film, shot for cheap on the sooty, overcast streets of Dublin (though it could’ve been anywhere) . It tells the story of a busking guitarist who, meets a gal on a lonely street while cutting his chest open for everyone to see (lyrically speaking).  Her musical talents quickly become evident to him, and they mutually ignite a unique creativity that helps the guy to record a demo of his truly talented songwriting, and for both of them to get their lives back on track, discovering what they truly want and living up to the situations in which they find themselves.

What unfolds is something like a cross between a musical and a documentary on music production; you almost expect the camera to cut to a face-to-face interview with the characters who then explain what they were thinking at the time and how crazy all that was and how they pretended to like the gal’s mother-in-law but really didn’t, etc.  But of course, it never does, because these people are not being asked to step out of their subjectivity and feed it back to the viewer.  They thrive in it, steeped in the confusion and ambiguity of their attraction to one another amidst deeper and more lasting commitments to other people.  Neither is ever given a name, but these characters take on a warmth and charm that got me to root for them in a way I usually can’t when it comes to film (now novels, on the other hand. . . ). 

This was clearest for me in the sequence when the Guy decides to record a demo before leaving for London.  There is an amusing and kind of adventurous feel to the work that must be done in order to book a recording studio, including persuading a loan-officer-turned-songwriter to lend him the money to book a recording studio for a weekend.  In a spare yet rich scene, the studio engineer skeptically looks on as the unimpressive cadre of backing musicians and immigrants prepares to record their first take.  There was a rush of adrenaline as I watched them step up to lay themselves on the line.  This guy was taking a real risk—the music wasn’t just a dream anymore, pondered morosely in the upstairs room of his da’s house.  There was money on the line.  There were consequences to this performance.  And what comes forth from the various voices and instruments in that moment of risk is stirring.  In unison with the engineer, who had settled in for a long weekend of coddling some amateurs, we realize that this is something good.  They’re doing it, I said to myself.  This is a moment each of these strange people has been preparing for.  A moment of kairos, where time ceases to be a mere succession of “nows” and whirlpools into an axis of destiny—foreseen, intended, rejoiced over.  And honestly, it was beautiful to see them doing it—musicians played by real musicians, who knew the thrill of being thrown together with unfamiliar players at a moment of truth, and who could therefore create a believable now-or-never moment that drew out of me an unconsidered, unrestrained, fist-pounding burst of tears.  I said there and then, in a kind of prayer, This is real.  This is real.  This is real.  I believed every second of it, rehearsed as it was, in spite of never having experienced any of that myself . . . yes, I believed every second.  I drank it in through my eyes, thrust forward in the lazy boy, heart pounding like this was battle footage.  Watching people making music

This, my friends, is filmmaking.

In the bleary, waking unconsciousness of overwork, relationships evolve rapidly, and the film did a fine job of capturing the meandering, miscellaneous energy of creative collaboration in which the hours and days melt into one another.  But it also managed to help me see the joyful rest on the far side of it.  The Guy sits on the car hood, watching these familiar strangers goofing on the chilly beach as the sun rises, the fumes of a fresh success still swimming through him—a success that had nothing to do with recognition or payoff, but of the joy that came from being the lynchpin in the bringing into the world of something genuine, something marvelous in its exuberance and nuance.  It is in this moment that the Guy is really, truly enviable—having stepped forward into uncertainty and the possibility of failure, he was proven worthy to proceed, worthy to have led these nobodies into somebody-ness. 

They disband as quickly as they were assembled, without much explanation.  So pass our successes, recognized perhaps only by a few.  But those few matter to us.  They matter deeply.  “We cannot speak to ourselves the words we most need to hear.”  Those who speak them may be deeply attached to us, like fathers; they may be nothing more than familiar strangers with an eye to see the goodness in what we do, and the credibility to speak with authority—like the recording engineer who almost becomes a part of the band he is being paid to assist.  It is a deep mystery of human existence that we receive our flourishing not from within but from without.  It is given to us as a gift, a word of love that confirms to us beyond any doubt that it is good that we, that I, exist.

The filmmakers should be very, very proud of this film, and I encourage whoever has gone ahead and read this post without having seen the film to take advantage of the first opportunity to do so.

*** I am not and never will be ashamed of my devotion to “The Last of the Mohicans” throughout most of my teens.