Tuesday, May 26, 2009

iPhone Art

This week's The New Yorker features a really cool cover titled "Finger Painting," made by an artist on his iPhone. The best part: the video, showing how this thing was done, conveniently embedded right here:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Past as Guide in the NBA

The NBA playoffs are in full swing, but the Conference Finals means that all but four teams are already planning for the future. The NBA itself can’t resist looking ahead, as a defining event for some lucky team, the Draft Lottery, is fast approaching, scheduled for May 19, in beautiful Secaucus, New Jersey. It's worth taking a break from the playoffs to think about how teams arrive at whatever destination marks their fate.

A perusal of how franchises are constructed reveals some fascinating patterns. The GMs and coaches have changed--even the owners have flipped for some of these teams--but in many cases teams continue to follow highly idiosyncratic templates.

Take the Texas trio, for example: San Antonio and Houston have been defined for the past quarter-century by No. 1 overall draft picks of the 84 inches and up variety (in addition to the obvious personalities, don't forget about Ralph Sampson). These teams have had the good fortune to be bad in years preceding the professional arrival of franchise centers; the various decision-makers of these franchises have needed to focus only on building supporting casts for these fortuitous focal points. While this precision-awfulness can’t be counted on as a management strategy, these teams have managed to win six out of the past 15 titles.

Dallas, on the other hand, has seemed incapable of building through the draft. The vaunted Triple-J's of the '90's amounted to precious little. Even Nowitzki, the driving force of the franchise for the past decade, was acquired through a trade. The same goes for Nash, Finley, and the current version of Kidd, etc. Josh Howard, Mr. Irrelevant of the first round of the 2003 draft, was an afterthought for most of his own draft. Mark Cuban might have tried to buy the Cubs, but his franchise's method of team building more closely resembles that of the Yankees. And like the team from the Bronx, the aging Mavs team seems to be drifting away from its championship window.

The Celtics have repeatedly built championship-winning teams through a strategy of craftiness. Russell, McHale and Parish were all acquired through trades revolving around the draft. The contemporary team is the only one of my lifetime to betray a hint of a hired-gun championship, with three perennial All-Stars teaming together to win a title. And Larry Bird has not one but two talent-acquisition rules named after him: the Larry Bird Collegiate Rule (which disallows teams from drafting and retaining the rights to players before they are ready to enter the NBA) and the Larry Bird Exception (which allows teams to, basically, exceed the salary cap to resign their own players.) Through the Bird Rules, the NBA has mitigated this Boston advantage, by, respectively, eliminating a loophole and extending a loophole to be utilized by all teams. But the Celtics still maintain one edge: the other GMs of the league can’t seem to stop trading future Hall-of-Famers to Boston.

The Jazz, perhaps befitting their host state, have found a formula that works and have stuck with it for the last twenty years: team a top-notch, pass-first point guard with a power-forward of average height (for the position) but above-average bulk. The current iteration of the team even employs two of these power-forwards, in case the notoriously unfaithful Boozer decides to leave.

Orlando has a distinct habit of drafting physically dominant big-men who dunk ferociously and have some sort of Superman complex. We'll see if Howard can match Shaq by reaching an NBA Finals, and we'll see if he can exceed Shaq by winning one in Disney’s backyard. Not only that, but for the early part of this decade, it was nearly impossible not to see McGrady as a replacement version of Penny Hardaway, playing the role of tall and lanky guard wearing #1 on their shirts, eventually leaving Orlando on diverse but equally disappointing terms.

Chicago, meanwhile, has acquired its best players through what comes closest in the NBA to dumb luck. The greatest player in league history is available at the third pick of the draft? The Bulls are lucky enough to hold the third pick in that draft. A premier point guard in an era of ultra-important guard play is available in the draft the season after the Bulls finish with only the ninth worst record? No problem, Chicago doesn't need more than a 1.7% chance of employing Derrick Rose.

Which brings us to Portland. Will this franchise never learn to draft game-changing talent over mediocre 84 inchers, even if they already have All-Stars lined up at shooting guard? Will this reputation lead to some future draft in which Portland overcompensates for previous blunders, and bypasses a world-class center in favor of a decent swingman, all to avoid adding to the legacy of Bowie and Oden?

With very rare exceptions, basketball players don’t change in meaningful ways. Sure, they may add facets to their games (a post-up move here, or a few ticks of free throw percentage there) but this infrequently leads to dramatic new directions in the narrative of the player. Even the Most Improved Player Award winners have routinely been the beneficiary of either normal development or increased opportunity. It might not only be the players, though, who are unable to change; NBA franchises seem to be stuck in their peculiar ways of team-construction. As teams look to build for the future, they all need to contend with their own pasts.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Quick and Dirty Read of the Opening Chapter of "A Farewell to Arms"

There's this book club in my neighborhood I'm probably going to join. It's been going on for maybe half a year now, but this month's meeting is the first I'm planning to attend. We're reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and I managed to get through the opening chapter last night before falling asleep. The phrase opening chapter might be a little misleading--I've read a grand total of two pages in Scribner's 2003 Trade Paperback edition. But that hasn't kept me from thinking things about these two pages.

The book opens with a first person narrator describing the events of "that year," with the specific year unspecified as of yet. We know almost nothing about the nameless, ageless, genderless narrator--besides for the four uses of the word "we," this section reads as third person narration. Third person narration, that is, describing equally covert soldiers of an unidentified army, fighting a mysterious war.

So, point is, at this stage we know almost nothing about any of the characters or the narrative of this particular plot. That is because, I posit, the first chapter isn't about anything or anyone in particular. These first two pages are about war and its effects.

Consider the following:
Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.
War affects nature, changing even the leaves of the trees.
There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery.
War affects daily cycles, illuminating the night.
Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic.
War affects human behavior, increasing traffic when there normally is none.

The way Hemingway sets the stage for what became known as perhaps the best American novel about World War 1 (at least according to the book's back cover) is exceedingly cool. I look forward to the next 328 pages.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wolverine's Origins Are Surprisingly Boring

With the release of the season's first big budget movie event, summer has arrived. If the initial film's quality is indicative of what will follow, it'll be a tedious season. There's nothing wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine; it's just boring. After witnessing the release of approximately 10,000 superhero movies in the last five years, the genre feels tired. Or maybe formulaic and trite iterations of the genre just seem more obvious after watching some truly cool things happen to superhero movies recently.

There's not much to say about the movie itself--I got the sense that the narrative didn't matter, even while I was watching it unfold. That's a problem with prequels in general (we know, for instance, that Wolverine can't die), but this film didn't do itself any favors by failing to reveal anything interesting about any of the characters or, really, forgetting to exert any effort towards the goal of making the viewer care about the narrative or the characters.

The good thing about bad movies is that it allows movie critics to strut their stuff a little. We're lucky to be living in a time with some wonderful movie writers. So instead of spending more time thinking about this utterly forgettable film, let's read together some good writing about a film.

Like this bit, from Slate reviewer Dana Stevens:
Even by the standard of a fourth-in-a-series summer blockbuster, Wolverine, the first X-Men movie directed by Gavin Hood (Rendition), is remarkably lame. At least three of its images are clich├ęd enough to have already been parodied on The Simpsons: the hero silhouetted against the sunset as he carries his girl to safety; the aforementioned climactic showdown on top of a nuclear reactor (unfortunately, unlike Homer, no character here is wearing a muumuu); and the hero shouting "Nooooo!" over his beloved's body as the camera pulls up to the heavens.
Or how about national treasure, Roger Ebert:
At least, you hope, he [Wolverine] has an interesting vulnerability? I'm sure X-Men scholars can tell you what it is, although since he has the gift of instant healing, it's hard to pinpoint. When a man can leap from an exploding truck, cling to an attacking helicopter, slice the rotor blades, ride it to the ground, leap free and walk away (in that ancient cliche where there's a fiery explosion behind him but he doesn't seem to notice it), here's what I think: Why should I care about this guy? He feels no pain and nothing can kill him, so therefore he's essentially a story device for action sequences.
It's really worth reading Ebert's entire review; it's nice that our most famous movie reviewer is also probably the best.

While Stevens and Ebert focus on the Wolverine movie, David Foster Wallace in an article titled "F/X Porn" takes on the big-budget sequel as an idea. After a lengthy analysis of why he loved Terminator 1 and hated Terminator 2, DFW explains his theory of Special Effects Porn. Here goes:
The point is that head-clutchingly insipid stuff like this puts an ever heavier burden of importance on "T2"'s digital effects, which now must be stunning enough to distract us from the formulaic void at the story's center, which in turn means that even more money and directional attention must be lavished on the film's F/X. This sort of cycle is symptomatic of the insidious three-part loop that characterizes Special Effects Porn --

ONE: Astounding digital dinosaur / tornado / volcano / Terminator effects that consume almost all the director's creative attention and require massive financial commitment on the part of the studio;

TWO: A consequent need for guaranteed megabuck ROI [Return on Investment], which entails the formulaic elements and easy sentiment that will assure mass appeal (plus will translate easily into other languages and cultures, for those important foreign sales...);

THREE: A director -- often one who's shown great talent in earlier, less expensive films -- who is now so consumed with realizing his spectacular digital vision, and so dependent on the studio's money to bring the F/X off, that he has neither the leverage nor the energy to fight for more interesting or original plots / themes / characters.

-- and thus yields the two most important corollary formulations of the Inverse Cost and Quality Law:

(ICQL(a)) The more lavish and spectacular a movie's special effects, the shittier that movie is going to be in all non-F/X respects. For obvious supporting examples of ICQL (a), see lines 1-2 of this article and/or also "Jurassic Park," "Independent Day," "Forrest Gump," etc.

(ICQL (b)) There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources. The number of supporting examples of ICQL (b) is sobering. Have a look, e.g., at the difference between Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" and his "From Dusk to Dawn," between DeBont's "Speed" and "Twister," between Gilliam's "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys," between Bigelow's "Near Dark" and "Strange Days." Or chart Cameron's industry rise and artistic decline from "T1" and "Aliens" through "T2" and "The Abyss" to -- dear Lord -- "True Lies." U.S. entertainment media report that Cameron's new "Titanic," currently in American release, is (once again) the most expensive and technically ambitious film of all time. Doubtless, Britons have been pricing trenchcoats and lubricants in anticipation of its arrival in the UK.
I apologize for the lengthy excerpt, but I think it's worth it.

Here's hoping that there'll be some decent movies this summer.

Friday, May 1, 2009

When Great Things Collide

From the 2009 edition of Baseball Prospectus, in the player profile of Scott Campbell, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays:
New Zealand native Campbell is on a quest to become the first Kiwi to reach the major leagues...Too bad it didn't happen in time for his baseball card to make its way into Murray's office in the second season of Flight of the Conchords.
I love this book.