DVD Review: Missing in America

Few first-time directors get to work with such a stellar cast as Gabrielle Savage Dockterman did with her 2005 independent film Missing in America, now available on DVD. Danny Glover anchors the movie as Jake Neely, a crusty Vietnam vet who has fled his demons to a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest woods. David Strathairn is the ailing army buddy who tracks Neely down and leaves his half-Vietnamese daughter (Zoë Weizenbaum of Memoirs of a Geisha) in the care the only friend he feels he can trust. Linda Hamilton brings earthy humor to the role of a widowed shopkeeper whose life is also transformed by the arrival of the little girl. And Ron Perlman is heartbreaking as Red, a permanently traumatized, mute vet who lives like a wild man in the backwoods.

Yes, it’s a cliché: the unexpected arrival of a child giving meaning to the lives of sad, withdrawn adults. But the film largely overcomes that handicap, thanks mostly to three factors.

First, and least important artistically, is the film’s antiwar message. There’s no explicit reference to current events, but the bitterness expressed by these vets at the senseless destruction of life makes the filmmakers’ point of view quite clear.

Second, Dockterman’s richly atmospheric depiction of the way these people live resonates powerfully not just with veterans but with anyone who has known loss. There really is a community of Vietnam vets, permanently injured emotionally, mentally and physically, who have decamped from society to nurse their wounds in the woods. Vets who’ve never met really can recognize each other without speaking, as those in the film do. Adapted from a story by Vietnam vet Ken Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dockterman and Nancy L. Babine, the film captures the loneliness of life in those rainy woods for war-damaged figures like Neely and Red.

Third, and most important, are the performances, especially by Glover and Weizenbaum. The former breaks somewhat from his more typical action and humor roles to portray the embittered, self-hating, but ultimately salvageable soul at the center of this sentimental drama. He conveys the character’s woes, and the awakening of fatherly love, through expressions and body language more than words. It’s quintessential movie acting, a performance that would probably be mentioned in Oscar speculations if there were a theatrical release.

The catalyst for Glover’s best work here is the talented and adorable newcomer Weizenbaum, a marvelous discovery in whom Dockterman can take great pride, especially since the actress had only been in a few stage productions prior to this film (it was made before Geisha.) Her portrayal of the abandoned girl, Lenny, is funny, touching, and as broad or subtle as the scene requires. (In the commentary Dockterman points out several inspired moments the actress improvised.) The onscreen chemistry between her and Glover is irresistibly heartwarming.

Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but in Dockterman’s hands – abetted by Sheldon Mirowitz’s mercifully tasteful score – we get our catharsis without feeling overly manipulated, even after a shocking plot twist. And we also learn something about a subculture I, for one, had no idea existed. What I didn’t like was the set-up. Strathairn is a fine actor and has some very touching moments as the little girl’s doting father, but the way his character arrives, reconnects with Neely, and sets the story in motion feels contrived. It’s not until he takes off, leaving the two main characters to get acquainted, odd-couple style, that the movie comes to life.

Another, smaller flaw is an out-of-character display by Lenny, during a scene with Hamilton’s character, of a seemingly supernatural level of empathy. It relates to an alternate ending that was wisely left for the Special Features section.

The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes and the very detailed and enlightening director’s commentary. The short piece about the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is also worth watching.

Mel Call!

I got my Mel call this morning.

It was surprisingly early – only 6 AM in Hollywood, 9 by me. Of course, I just assume West Coast – Mel could have been calling from anywhere. It was a 666 area code, a cell phone I guess. But the signal was five by five.

“Hello, is this Jonathan?”

See, right there I knew it wasn’t somebody I knew. My friends call me Jon, my family, Jonny. But something in the caller’s voice told me it wasn’t a sales pitch or collection agency. (They usually ask for “Mister Sobble.”) Also, the guy sounded strangely familiar.

“Speaking,” I said redundantly.

“This is Mel Gibson. We’ve never actually met, but – maybe you’ve seen some of my movies?”

Actually, we had met. Mel had stolen my girlfriend during a locally famous dust-up at the Wyoming State Fair back in the 80s. But I couldn’t really expect a big star like him to remember – it was probably nothing to him. Anyway, water under the bridge and all that.

“Sure,” I said. “You’re that crazy guy from Lethal Weapon.”

“Right, right, good on ya. Anyway, I got a lot of calls to make so I’ll get straight to the point.” He took a deep, sexiest-man-alive kind of breath. “I’m calling every Jew in the world to personally apologize for my recent conduct. It’s not a plea bargain or community service or anything like that – I just feel it’s the right thing to do.”

“Thanks, Mel,” I said, tearing up. He might be a crazed anti-Semitic non-Holocaust-denier-denier, but I’ve always said he’s a great actor.

“I said some things,” he went on, “well – you’ve said some things, we’ve all said some things” – here he barked one of those cute little half-Aussie, half-nuts giggles – “but I really stuck my foot in it this time and I wanted to personally apologize to you. Ah, Jonathan.”

“I appreciate the gesture, Melvin,” I said, “but you know, in my experience, what people say when they’re drunk and angry is a reflection of what’s in their deepest soul. They don’t blurt out things they don’t mean. It’s exactly the opposite. They say things they really think but normally would put a lid on.”

There was a long pause. I could hear Mel breathing. I was imagining him with face paint, on a horse. What a guy. What a stand-up, sit-down guy.

“What’s that you say?” he mumbled. I heard a clattering noise, like a pint of Australian-for-beer hitting the floor.

“Mel,” I said. “Mel, are you drunk?”

“Well, sure,” he replied. “A little. You know how much pressure I’m under, mate. It’s like, probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I mean it could be my career at stake here. So, ah – are you, ah – gonna accept the apology?”

I stroked my weak Jewish chin. Mel probably couldn’t hear the stroking – but I did wonder if maybe he could. I hadn’t shaved in two days so I was kind of stubbly, and you want to look cool when you’re talking to Mel Gibson. Stubbly, or something. Even just on the phone. Wouldn’t you? Guys?

“Let me think about this a minute, Mel,” I said slowly. “You’re apologizing for making some fairly vicious anti-Semitic statements. Are you also apologizing for not speaking out against your father’s Holocaust denials? ‘Cause, you know, we haven’t forgotten about that. What do you say, Braveheart? I’m not one of your groupies. With me it’s all or nothing.”

“Jonathan,” Mel said. “Will you hold on a second?”

“I’m pretty busy – will this take long?”

“No way. Be right back. I swear.”

Mel put his expressive hand over the phone and I heard a muted conversation on the other side of it. Probably talking to one of those Jewish lawyers or managers he keeps on staff. I couldn’t make out much, but I did hear Mel growl something about “trying to Jew him down.”

Twenty or thirty seconds later he came back on the line. “I’ll make you a deal, Jonathan. “I’ll admit my dad is wrong, if you – hey, Jonathan, do you know I’m a big supporter of animal rights?”

“No, I didn’t know that,” I said, wondering where he was going with this.

“Well, I am. Now, if you promise to eat only vegetarian matzoh from now on, I’ll admit my dad was wrong to deny the whatchamacallit.”

“Vegetarian matzoh?”

“Yah. You know – made without the blood of Christian babies.”

“Oh, that kind. Nah, it really doesn’t have any flavor.” And I hung up. I had no more time for that drunken idiot.

Ain’t that just like an Aussie. God, I hate those people.

The Literary Shadow of 9/11

In the four and a half years since the September 11 attacks, New Yorkers’ lives have changed in a number of ways, some obvious and predictable, others not so much.

Even as we go about our daily business we’re conscious, of course, of the potential for an attack at any time. Naturally we’re inclined to think “terrorism” whenever there’s a sudden infrastructure problem such as a power outage. And we’ll never look at our firefighters in quite the same way again.

But another change has crept up on me in the past couple of years: a change in my life as an audience – as a watcher of movies, a collector of TV shows on DVD, and above all, as a reader of books.

As it turns out, 9/11 has drawn an indelible line across the modern storytelling oeuvre. Works composed before the event differ from those composed after – not necessarily in their content, or even in any inherent quality, but in the light in which – or shadow under which – I will read them.

I don’t read a great many new novels, but I did read Nicholas Rinaldi’s New York tale Between Two Rivers, published in 2004. Only a small part of the book dealt directly with the attacks, but the whole story seemed suffused in a consciousness of destruction, of endings. Just as a New York apartment is classified as pre- or postwar, so must a New York novel now be called pre- or post-9/11. Rinaldi’s was the first post-9/11 novel I read.

Just today I picked up a copy of Paul Auster‘s The New York Trilogy. Auster is one of those writers I have always intended to read but never gotten around to, mostly because I’m very contrary in my reading habits and hate to be reading what everybody else is. (I resisted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy precisely because all my college buddies were going apeshit over it; and to this day I haven’t read the damn thing. My loss, I suppose.)

Still, Auster has always seemed an obvious choice on whom to spend some of my limited novel-reading time. Local not only to New York but to my own Brooklyn neighborhood, usually featured prominently on the “Local Authors” shelf of the Barnes and Noble stores around here, he is also considered a Major Literary Author on a national scale.

So, picking up the book, which was written in the mid-to-late 1980s, I read the intriguing first sentence:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

So far so good: like any good story, it evokes a place, a situation. Specifically, I’m in somebody’s head as he remembers how something started: how the thing, whatever it was, started with the phone ringing while he, whoever he is, was in bed, and how it was a wrong number.

About the period, the sentence tells me only that the action takes place sometime since the advent of the telephone. The thirties. The fifties. The eighties. The present. Prior to 9/11, I would simply have absorbed what I could from it, and continued reading,

But I know something else, something that five years ago wouldn’t have seemed so important: when the story was written.

I know it is pre-9/11 – from modern times, but before the attack. I also know from the title that the story’s going to take place in New York. Hence its fictional New Yorkers will not have experienced the defining New York moment that was 9/11. They’ll inhabit a version of the city that no longer exists. Still “modern times,” but no longer the same times today’s reader is living. 9/11 hadn’t informed the author’s imagination. In this book, it will not have happened.

Today, and maybe until I die, I will be approaching any book – and even a pre-9/11 movie or TV series, if I’m not familiar with it – not simply as a modern story about a familiar world or city. Rather, I will be approaching it in the shadow, or in the light, of a great divide. I will have to know: was the story imagined and birthed prior to the attack? Or does it have that smoke in the lungs, that soot on the face, that shock hardened into the bones of the 9/11 survivor?

Of course this won’t apply to older stories, those set in a time that from the vantage point of September 10 2001 already felt like another era. If I revisit a classic – Herman Melville, Humphrey Bogart – or check out some Nabokov or Billy Wilder I’ve missed, then no sweat.

But if it’s from the world that I myself knew prior to 9/11, my interest may be just a little bit less.

In fact, I might feel like turning to my friend and bandmate Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edits science fiction and fantasy, and ask “What have you got that’s good lately?”

Ahhh. Faeries.

Another Preordained Dollar-Coin Failure?

Once again the US Treasury is planning a new dollar coin. Ever since the Depression ended and inflation took hold, one of the most inconvenient things about quotidian life in the US has been the necessity for one-dollar bills. Yet, as with more urgent matters like health care and global warming, the US has been and remains well behind the times in pocket-change convenience.

Contrary to what some say, the failure of dollar coins to catch on cannot be ascribed to a recalcitrant public. The blame rests primarily with poor coin design. I vividly remember my first trip to the UK after the introduction of the one-pound coin. Unlike the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins, the thick, heavy pound – though small in diameter – cannot be mistaken for any lesser coin, either singly in the hand or jumbled in the pocket. It’s a perfect little coin. Using it instead of a pound note is a joy.

Since coins last longer than paper money, replacing dollar bills with coins would save the Treasury a lot of money – according to an estimate that goes back as far as 1997, $150 million a year. Still the Treasury hasn’t taken this common-sense step.

Another roadblock to widespread adoption of a dollar coin is the business interest of Crane & Co., the politically powerful Massachusetts firm that manufactures the linen for US currency. One should never underestimate the power of one or two beholden US Senators.

Nonetheless, upon the introduction of a well-designed dollar coin, public demand would militate in its favor and against further use of the dollar bill, which would die out, and rather quickly, as people discovered how much more convenient it was not have to go into their wallets for day-to-day purchases of gum, newspapers and beer.

Instead, we are getting more commemorative collectibles. The Treasury will raise a bunch of money in one burst, as with the 50-state quarters. Machines will dispense the new coins as change, but hardly anyone will use them otherwise. Inertia will reign once again, and we’ll continue to fish for those filthy little pieces of paper every other minute.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.

Now, about those pennies…

DVD Review: Serenity

Joss Whedon’s star-crossed TV space-western Firefly comes full circle this week with the DVD release of its feature film follow-up, Serenity. Thanks to devoted fans, the poorly marketed and quickly cancelled series did so well in its DVD release that Universal gave Whedon a green light to bring his crew of ragged, wisecracking space outlaws to the big screen. And now, just months after leaving the theaters, they’re shrunk onto a shiny little disk you can watch at home on your TV – where, incidentally, you can also catch the original series in rotation on the SciFi Channel.

And Whedon – who declares he’s not interested in making things people will like, only things they’ll love – has served up another lovefest. The film has all the story, drama, and character development a fan of the show could want as well as enough action, humor, and special effects to entertain neophytes. The cast, whose closest thing to a star is Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame, is charming and talented; though good-looking, they seem real enough to convince as fringe members of society. The dialogue is taut and witty, the direction fast-paced without being too busy, the action thrilling and the computer effects seamlessly integrated with the live-action photography.

On the surface, the Serenity universe could hardly be more different from the world Whedon created for his two earlier (and far more successful) TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, which aired for seven and five years respectively. Like Serenity, those shows focussed on scrappy teams of adventurers, but the Buffyverse was infested with supernatural creatures and dominated by mystical powers, demons, magic, religious iconography, gothic romanticism, and a past that reached powerfully into the present. The Serenity “‘verse,” by contrast, is dusty and messy, peopled by thieves, prostitutes, suck-ups, disgruntled veterans, and garden variety assholes, and it’s all about now: today’s heist, tomorrow’s bar fight, next week’s adventure. And although as with most futuristic epics there is a backstory, it exists mostly to explain what made our heroes outlaws.

Like the galaxy of Isaac Asimov’s seminal Foundation trilogy (yes, I know there were more than three books, but there were only three books), Whedon’s futureverse is inhabited only by humans, spread among rich central planets (ruled by the “Alliance”) and poorer, more lawless outer worlds where everyone’s just “folk” and, not coincidentally, most of the action takes place. The story centers on River Tam (Summer Glau), a teenager whose cruel abuse at the hands of Alliance mad scientists has made her into a dangerously unstable human weapon, and her doctor brother who cares for her as they evade the authorities on board Serenity.

Summer Glau in

A ruthless, unnamed Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a subtly creepy performance) is sent by the Alliance to recapture River. In the ensuing action, one of the TV series’s interesting mysteries is explained, River has a wonderfully Buffy-like action sequence, freedom of speech and independent thought is championed, and an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes message (very resonant in America circa December 2005) is beamed to the Universe. Our heroes’ climactic battle is waged in defense not of property or homeland, nor even of lives, but of the truth.

Whedon, who both wrote and directed, proves himself as skillful a storyteller in the self-contained movie format as he is in the serial. The most interesting of the DVD’s bonus features are probably the deleted scenes, not because of what they reveal about the story, but because you can really see why every single one of them was unnecessary to the telling of the story and thus correctly dropped from the narrative. There are also some funny outtakes, reflections by the filmmakers on the movie’s unusual path to creation, and appreciations of and by the fans who made it possible. But the main reason you’d want to own this movie is that it’s worth more than one viewing. The details of the cinematography, the fast pace of the action and dialogue, and the pathos of the ending all become richer upon a second (and third) look.

Defeat the Homeless

Now, here’s a war I can get behind.

Emerging from the ATM yesterday – none the richer, since some vengeful deity has decreed against my having any money this week – I encountered one of the ubiquitous United Homeless Organization tables. Usually the pitch is some variation of “Give just a penny to help feed the homeless.”

Yesterday the table was womanned by a lady calling out very clearly, “Give a penny, help defeat the homeless.”

If I’d had a penny to spare, I might have done it. I would very much like to defeat the homeless. Actually, I would like to defeat anyone. I would love to experience the thrill of victory. To gloat, to crow, to lord it over my vanquished enemy. The homeless? Bring ’em on.

Like some intellectual Al Bundy, my victories came early in life. Leading my eighth-grade class to victory over Russell’s class in the big current-events trivia match. Receiving some academic awards. Getting into Harvard (much harder than getting through it, by the way). Getting the girl I was madly in love with to marry me.

But where are the victories now? Whenever do mature adults get to win things? These days I can’t even win an argument.

Sure, you can call a radio station and win passes to a concert, or buy a lottery ticket that returns a few bucks. But that’s winning against chance. Where’s the joy of defeating a real foe? Where?

I guess it’s like the great composer Charles Ives said: “Prizes are for children.” Except if you get famous. Then you can accept your Oscar or Emmy or Grammy, graciously thank all the people who got you where you are, and go home and gloat.

But not us regular people. So I give up. You win. Satisfied?

Movie Review: Walk the Line

Walk the Line, the new biopic about Johnny and June Carter Cash, is loaded with music, family drama, drug abuse, sentiment, comedy and tragedy. But it’s not about any of those things.

Talent, fame and riches didn’t protect country music’s best-known couple from the blows that afflict us all. Just like us, they seemed to spend their lives alternately rebelling against and trying to live up to their parents’ expectations. Director James Mangold’s depiction of the first half of Cash’s life and his relationship with June Carter is, first, about the security-blanket-cum-straitjacket of family. But most fundamentally it’s a story of the simultaneously confounding and uplifting, devastating and salvational power of love.

As depicted here, the young Cash tries to be a good husband to his wife Vivian (the effective Ginnifer Goodwin making the best of a fairly thankless role) and daughters, but as his career takes off and he spends more time on the road his abuse of pills and alcohol turns him into an unpredictable, staggering jerk. Yet his friendship with June Carter, deepening as they tour together, turns gradually and inexorably into the true love which ultimately saves the volatile Cash from himself and the upright Carter from her unfulfilling marriages.

Joaquin Phoenix transforms with gusto first into the awkward young singer and thence into the fabled Man in Black whose common touch and unearthly deep voice made him the Everyman of American music. Though Phoenix pushes the mannerisms a little too far at times, he convinces us that he is the tortured soul who could, in the climactic scene, connect deeply with a crowd of prisoners at the famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert. Reese Witherspoon, in spite of looking a little too young and fresh towards the end, is miraculous as June Carter Cash, who gave as good as or better than she got, stuck by her friend in need, and just happened to write “Ring of Fire” along the way.

Especially notable in the excellent supporting cast are Robert Patrick as the senior Cash – a seething tower of repressed rage – Dallas Roberts as legendary producer Sam Phillips, and Ridge Canipe and Lucas Till as 12-year-old Johnny and his brother Jack. (It’s amazing how good child actors are these days.) T-Bone Burnett’s ghostly, Doors-like score knits the scenes together, the actors do a good job singing the classic songs, and Mangold’s directing style is to stay out of the way and let the taut script and good acting tell the story. And that’s what this is: nothing too fancy, just a damn good yarn. True, it’s about famous people, but their struggles illuminate our own. The songs which Johnny Cash and the Carter Family before him sang so plainly and richly did the same – and still do, if we take the time to listen. When it comes down to it it’s all about love – its presence, its absence, the troubles it makes for us and the rescues it alone can effect. Not just interesting, the story this movie tells so well might even serve as an inspiration to aspiring singers, songwriters, couples, and struggling human beings everywhere.

A Weed Grows In Brooklyn

We have a plant growing in our kitchen.

Not a houseplant in a pot (we’ve never had much luck with those). It’s a weed, growing up through a gap between the linoleum tile and the painted wooden molding.

We’re pretty messy people, and our somewhat decrepit kitchen never really gets clean. But it has been ever thus. Why a kitchen weed now?

The nearby dishwasher has been broken for months. There’s no faucet within leaking or spraying distance. And if the cats were “watering” it, we’d smell something.

Between the kitchen and the backyard is the bedroom, which has no basement or foundation under it because it used to be a porch. So I guess you could say that, groundwise at least, Planty is really only two feet or so from the Brooklyn jungle out back. Maybe there’s groundwater seeping into the wooden floor of the kitchen, gradually turning the 125-year-old wood into yummy mulch. Can’t really tell.

Don’t really want to know anyway. (We rent.)

As for light: maybe this is a good advertisement for the full-spectrum bulbs in the ceiling fixture. It really is Like Sunshine In Your Home!

Here’s a picture of Planty, and a picture of the backyard.

planty_closeup yard_sm

Planty looks fragile, and he’s not growing fast. But he’s persisted, green as any yard weed, for weeks now. Does he yearn for the yard? Does he pine for his weedy mates growing apace in the brownstone backwoods, so close yet so impossibly far?

Or is Planty a sinister offshoot of one of those unkillable yard vines, or of the pretty but deadly pokeweed that the cats somehow know not to nibble?

Planty will not easily give up his secrets. But I know one thing:

You just don’t get this sort of entertainment in the suburbs.

Theater Review: The Taming of the Shrew

It’s a common problem in the theater: how to maintain reverence for the text of a great work when the message of that text has become politically incorrect. One can play it straight, aiming for historical accuracy, or one can risk undermining the art by updating the story. To explain just how the Queen’s Company, an all-female troupe, manage the task in their delightful and thought-provoking new feminist rendition of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew would be to give away too much of what makes the production so entertaining. Suffice it to say they succeed grandly in giving the play a modern spin while presenting Shakespeare’s language with its grace and bawdy humor intact.

As it must have in the Bard’s day – only here in reverse – it takes just moments to suspend disbelief and accept the female actors as men. After a scene or two, one ceases observing how they ape and exaggerate male postures and mannerisms, and gets swept up in director Rebecca Patterson’s zippy telling of Shakespeare’s tale of the loudmouthed, independent Kate (played with commanding charm by the spunky but focussed Carey Urban); her meek, proper sister Bianca (whose unconventional casting is even more interesting than the changed sex roles); and their pompous suitors. As with many modern productions of Shakespeare, this Shrew has been cut somewhat, and Patterson has contributed a new prologue; a musical production number Shakespeare probably would have enjoyed seeing; and some original stage business, notably during Petruchio’s attempts to break Kate’s spirit and during the latter’s climactic speech admitting that

I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

But no essential story elements are lost, and in some almost magical way the fine acting, brisk direction and genial high spirits marry the text quite naturally to a feminist interpretation. The outcome of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes is not so much reversed as made a fairer fight. And the happy ending of this classic comedy is to be found less in the mandatory weddings than in the extraordinarily touching expression of true love with which the production leaves us.

The one-named Samarra plays Petruchio with all the expected manly swagger, oozing lechery and confidence. Every cast member, in fact, contributes skill and boisterous energy; all are adept at the play’s requisite physical comedy – wonderfully staged by Patterson – as well as the playwright’s incomparable language. Terri Power even steals a few scenes in a nearly silent Servant role. Beverly Prentice as Hortensio especially shines with crystal-clear diction and amazingly spot-on delivery of every line.

Lighting and sound are in more than capable hands, contributing not only color and atmosphere but motion and pace. The set and costumes are perfect, just what’s needed and no more. But it’s Patterson’s conception, and the actors’ fulfillment of it, that make this production, if not a Shrew for the ages, certainly a fine Shrew for today. Among other things the play is a character study of an outspoken young woman chafing against male domination. It takes surprisingly little manipulation to turn its surface meaning around, since it already hides a fairly modern message. The Queen’s Company reveals the real heart of Kate’s character – and by extension, the human condition – in a speech less famous but more touching than the one at the end:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.

Who hasn’t felt that? Kate stands in for all of us. Now through November 20 at Walkerspace (in lower Manhattan).

Queen's Company - Taming of the Shrew

Photo by Bob Pileggi

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Book Review: TCP/IP Guide

TCP/IP, the stack of technologies that underlies the Internet and the World Wide Web, is, not surprisingly, a large and complex topic. During my two decades in the technology field I’ve looked at a number of books on the subject, but tended to give up quickly and content myself with the discrete bits of knowledge essential for the job at hand. TCP/IP, however, is one of the few important topics about which it is really impossible to know enough, even for an information systems generalist like myself. For TCP/IP technologies have become as critical to modern business – and personal communication – as blood circulation is to the human body.

Charles M. Kozierok’s new TCP/IP Guide is the best-organized and easiest-to-digest “complete” TCP/IP book I’ve ever seen. I put “complete” in quotes because no single volume could possibly drill down to every last detail of every protocol in the suite, and Kozierok doesn’t claim to, not even in the 1,400-plus pages of this volume. What he does, however, is write clearly and engagingly, dividing the topic into short manageable chapters, covering pretty much everything a technician could ever need to know about TCP/IP, and providing just the right amount of background information and context to give the reader a sense of why and how the technologies we use every day were designed just so.

The last is no small thing. The why and the how are of more than academic interest. Knowing how technologies developed sometimes actually helps increase comprehension. And having some historical context makes the essentially dry and difficult subject matter more pleasant to read, which is also no small matter.

The book delivers to the attentive reader a working knowledge of TCP/IP in all its multifaceted complexity. Kozierok begins with some valuable chapters on the fundamentals of networking technology, the standards organizations that give rise to the flummoxing sea of acronyms every IT professional must learn, and the mathematics that underlies computing (if you’ve ever struggled to understand binary or hexadecimal numbers, the explanations in this book are as good as any I’ve seen). Then, the heart of the book explains the many protocols and related technologies that comprise the TCP/IP stack.

It’s structured logically according to the layers of the OSI Reference Model, starting from the physical transfer of data via wires, moving up through the complex logic that enables a giant network of millions of devices (e.g. the Internet) to interoperate smoothly, and ending with the top-level applications most everyone’s familiar with, such as HTTP and email. Thus, one can comfortably read or skim the book straight through. Afterwards, it will function as a useful reference – probably for a number of years, since the pace of TCP/IP development is quite slow. (Imagine trying to rebuild a bridge into a bigger, better bridge without ever being able to close it to traffic, and you’ll have an idea why the next generation of TCP/IP, known as v6, has been under development for a decade already.)

Since it does not presume much network knowledge, the book is appropriate for both neophytes and professionals. I’ve been around this technology for many years, and even in my quick read-through I learned quite a bit. I also remembered why some of the topics, like subnet masking and sliding windows, have previously caused my head to swim, and appreciated the clear, detailed but concise presentations in this book. The author truly has a gift for explication.

I can’t think of a reason why any datacenter or beginning IT technician wouldn’t want to own this volume. It’s well written and organized, as complete as nearly everyone could want, contains many useful tables and diagrams, and covers IPv6, the forthcoming next generation of Internet technology. It’s not inexpensive, but then again, on a per-page basis it kind of is. And it’s not one of those books that’s going to be outdated in six months’ time. (Also, as a side benefit, carrying it around will help build muscle mass). If TCP/IP technology is at all important to your job, pick up a copy of this book – you won’t regret it.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Buddhism Underground

This is the first in an occasional series about my exploration of Buddhism while riding the New York subway.

Every morning on the subway I see people poring over religious texts. Seemingly oblivious to the groaning, shuffling tube-world of the subway car, these serious souls – Christian women; Orthodox Jews of both sexes; Muslims (usually women); and Holy Sisters of the Word Search – pass their daily commute in silent prayer or study. I am the only one marking up a book about Buddhism.

Buddhism’s teachings have much appeal in a complicated life, but they can be a little perplexing at first, and I had initially hoped the book would provide some explicit guidance for putting its principles into practice in some way. Reading it for the first time, I kept waiting for the author to get to the – well, not to the point, because he did make the central point again and again – but to the secret, the method, the trick even – or at least, a conclusion. We expect a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, practical or fantastic, to have a logical narrative flow. If it doesn’t, we think it’s a bad book.

But Buddhism teaches that there is no secret trick, and, in a sense, no narrative, since there is no reality to the perceived distinction between this and that, then and now. Indeed there is no “I,” no cork floating in the stream, but only stream, only thus. Shouldn’t a truly Buddhist book, then, also be only stream? Buddhism counsels us to be aware when our mind is “leaning,” whether it’s towards something we want to have or away from something we want to avoid. If we “want” Enlightenment, if we “want” to gain something from reading a book, we’ve already defeated our purpose. The book, then, should not be an instrument of our “leaning” this way or that.

From the standpoint of a student of literature and child of Western culture, one of the fascinating things about Buddhism as presented in this book is its use of small words to mean big things.

Whole. Mind. See. Awake. Thus. These words refer to aspects of the same phenomenon: simply being present.

The more we search for Truth among our thoughts and beliefs, the more subject to doubt we become… Anything that can be grasped must of necessity depend on other things for their validity. Hence, they are doubtful and perplexing… Ultimate Truth…can’t be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immediate, direct experience itself.

Words can never fully embody concepts. And Buddhism says concepts are artificial anyway. So words, any words, are twice removed from the Whole.


One apparent problem – for me, anyway – with Buddhism is that it seems unscientific. Of course, deity-based religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also unscientific, but they can co-exist peacefully with science because they rely on faith, which by definition does not require rational or scientific proof. (In fact, it’s when religion tries to pass itself off as scientific – as with “creation science” and its more insidious modern iteration, “intelligent design” – that bitter conflicts arise, with science put on the defensive by an enemy it cannot, by definition, engage, and religion – Christianity, in this case – devalued and shamed by its own professed champions.)

Buddhism, however, does not require “belief” or “faith” as such. In saying that all sensations, concepts and thoughts are artificial and unreal divisions of the Whole, it is profoundly unscientific, since science is the attempt to ascertain objective truth by studying observed phenomena.

Yet at the limits of science comes a recognition that we cannot ever completely arrive at objective truth; the best we can do is approach it asymptotically. The limits of our perception, the imperfections of our brains, will always be with us, preventing our understanding from becoming absolutely complete. So maybe Buddhism and science don’t conflict so badly after all.

We have to see where we can effectively apply our effort and where we can’t. When we’re not seeing we’ll put most, if not all, of our energy into the areas where we have no control. We’ll try to control situations, people, and things over which, in fact, we have little or no influence.

So says Buddhism Plain and Simple. And science, reason, and my therapist tell me exactly the same thing.

Pot City

The cover story of this week’s Time Out New York is about good places to go when you’re stoned. That’s right: high on marijuana, an illegal drug. Though it’s not exactly telling you to get high or where to get concentrates from, this is a big step for a news article to write about drug-related issues, namely marijuana. And despite a loose tie-in to the new TV show Weeds, the article really is what it purports to be. Hooray for freedom of the press, I say. They can’t take that away from us – not yet, anyway.

A sidebar notes that misdemeanor possession arrests are way down since 9-11, when the police discovered some (no pun intended) higher priorities. It also suggests that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t have a bug up his ass about pot the way his predecessor, the sainted Rudy Guiliani, did, and I’m inclined to agree. For a billionaire, Bloomberg’s pretty laid back. For that, and other more serious reasons, his re-election bid may be the first time in my life I vote for a Republican (or, in Bloomberg’s case, a “Republican”).

In a related development, this morning the Libertarian candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, Gary Popkin, approached me on the subway platform to get my signature on his candidacy petition. I signed, of course, though I disagree with parts of the Libertarian platform. Popkin’s website doesn’t mention anything about his views on the drug laws, but I’m guessing he’d be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana for medical use. That way, we’d definitely see more strains of marijuana with high CBD and low THC levels on the market; you can Visit this website to view these types. Decriminalizing marijuana is a big step, but definitely advantageous for many people who struggle with any medical issues. With the decriminalization of medical marijuana, perhaps even recreational use will be allowed and the stoners can enjoy an octopus bong to smoke out of legally. And if he wants to decriminalize it people will be able to get it without fear of police knocking on their door or a letter in the post, they’ll be able to get it from places such as https://topdispensary.ca/ and freely enjoy it in any form that it comes in.

Yesterday, Time Out New York’s special pothead issue; today, Libertarian ballot petitions. Coincidence? You decide.

Blogcritics Reaches Milestone: 10,000,000 Unique Visitors

It’s insufferably hot here in NYC – because of global warming I suppose – but no major hurricanes have hit us – yet. And while the atmosphere cooks, so does the blogosphere: I’m happy to be a writer for a blog that just received its ten millionth unique visitor. Congratulations to Eric Olsen, the editors, and the Blogcritics writers.

In music news, the Soul of the Blues Festival is over, and it was an overall big success. Not that anyone wore overalls, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, the recent opening of a “sex shop” on a busy commercial street left fans of www.fuckvideos.xxx rejoicing but also prompted this objection from an area resident: “To have what most people would associate with pornography right out there along with the basic services, it alarms them.” [Source: The Brooklyn Papers, July 23, 2005] That may be the worst objection to pornography I’ve ever heard. Porn may be all sorts of bad things, but for much of America, it’s nothing if not a “basic service,” find out here now the kind of porn Americans watch daily. There are millions of people across the world sitting at their computers accessing porn on websites such as Nu Bay but it is done so behind closed doors, it’s still a taboo subject even though it’s such a common past time.

There are also some adult porn websites that sound like they have child pornography images and videos on them because of what they are called, sites like www.youngsexer.com, but these sites are 100% legal and only contain images and videos of adults.

And in the New York City suburb of Rye, at the famous Rye Playland amusement park, a little boy was murdered by gnomes and trolls. So don’t let anyone tell you monsters aren’t real.

Born in the USA, and Still Here…

People my age and older are always talking about how time is flying, how they can’t believe how fast the years go by. Now, I don’t know if my life is unusually chock-full of interesting content, or if there’s some other explanation, but it ain’t that way for me at all.

Oh, sure, I have occasional moments of time-telescoping. For example, I recently inherited a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, an album I had heard plenty back in the 80’s but never owned. Not remembering exactly when it had come out, I looked at the CD and saw 1984. Hey, that’s not so long ago, I thought: just a little more than ten years. Seems longer, somehow.


But sensations of the slow passage of time far exceed compressive experiences, for me, in both frequency and amplitude. Most of the time I find myself looking back at a recent event and thinking, I can’t believe that was only a week ago. And when I reflect on the fact that I’m 42, I don’t think, Holy crap, how did I get to be 42? No, what I’m thinking is, Whew. Half done!

Of course, if I keep eating healthy like I am, and step up my physical fitness a bit, I could end up living forever, like Ray Kurzweil promises. Hmm. Well, at least Mars has plenty of water. And low gravity, and lots of big mountains to climb. See you up there!

CD Review: Styx, Big Bang Theory

Well, rock me over with a feather – Styx‘s new CD is damn good. Since it’s a collection of covers, fans who’ve stuck with the band all this time may have less reason to complain about Dennis DeYoung’s absence than they otherwise would. Or not. In any case, those who loved Styx for “Lady” and “Babe” might want to look elsewhere for their Styx fix – this is a guitar-heavy rock album with not a single keyboardy ballad. But its song choices are inspired, and with a few exceptions the interpretations are both loving and powerful.

The band, which since 1999 has included singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan along with original frontmen Tommy Shaw and James Young, does a fine version of the hard-to-cover “I Am the Walrus,” but won me over with The Who’s “I Can See For Miles,” sung by Shaw in a clear tenor that has lost neither its sweetness nor its authority through the decades. Shaw is less well suited to “Summer In the City,” which is listenable but in my opinion calls for ballsier vocals. But “Can’t Find My Way Home” is an excellent (if obvious) choice to focus on his strong high register (although it’s hard to imagine anyone really screwing up this incredible Blind Faith classic). The acoustic guitar work is exquisite.

Shaw also sings the blues-rock standard “One Way Out” with a good amount of soul, and the band, including longtime drummer Todd Sucherman and new bassist Ricky Phillips, really kicks out the jams on it. But the CD’s highlight for me is the Gowan-sung “Salty Dog,” a beautiful Procol Harum opus done by Styx with drama and passion.

A surprise one-minute version of “Find the Cost of Freedom” leads into an effective cover of Free’s “Wishing Well,” which, along with “I Don’t Need No Doctor” (Humble Pie) and the very obscure “Talkin’ About the Good Times” (The Pretty Things) show the band’s ability to make something new and vital out of songs pulled from pretty deep in the classic rock catalog. Gowan is not DeYoung; adding him to the mix seems to have turned Styx into the full-tilt rock band it always seemed to only partially be.

Which is interesting, because James Young, always Styx’s “heavier” element, is still a big part of the band, and his vocals are the same as they ever were. Which is to say, they haven’t gotten worse. OK, I was never much of a Young fan. To me, he always sounded heavy-metal-lite, or as if he were trying a little too hard to be bad-ass. Still, I rather like “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace),” a scruffy, late Willie Dixon shuffle with which I was not familiar. And “Locomotive Breath” is another song that’s pretty much impossible to mess up; this version won’t blow your mind, but it does have some vocal harmonies and octaves that add something to Tull’s original conception. Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” seems too gutsy a song for Young to convince on, though the wailing guitars and tribal drumming rock as hard as they can.

The CD closes with a slowed-down, acoustic-y version of Styx’s own “Blue Collar Man.” This wasn’t a great song in the first place, but it does well by this new version, with Shaw at his most emotional, and piano by the late Johnnie Johnson, whose appearance (along with that of original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo) points up the links that connect modern rock to the classic bands of the genre and further back to the origins of rock and roll. The best cover CDs do this, and this is one such.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Book Review: Baby of Bataan

Escaping difficult family circumstances, Joseph Quitman Johnson enlisted in the US army at the age of fourteen and was stationed with the 31st Infantry in the Philippines in April 1941. After Pearl Harbor, his coming-of-age adventure turned into a nightmare of combat and suffering. Johnson survived shelling and hand-to-hand combat, escaped from the famous Bataan Death March, and ended up a Japanese prisoner of war for nearly four years. Through illness, injuries, the deaths of his buddies and the sometimes extreme cruelty of his captors and conditions, the underage Johnson lived to tell the tale through a combination of quick wits, constitutional toughness, heroism and sheer luck.

Johnson’s account of his childhood and of his time stationed in the Philippines before the US entered the war is as interesting as the later war stories. Scrounging to help his mother put food on the table, traveling the country, working the stables with his father and encountering the era’s greatest celebrity, Seabiscuit – these tales are sketched just enough to give a clue as to where the strength of character came from that enabled Johnson to survive his later ordeals. The characters he meets on the streets of Manila during leaves, the trouble he gets into, and the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the base all come vividly to life on the page. Having fallen for a young pregnant Filipino prostitute, Johnson saves her from a terrible fate, then – when the war is about to come to the city – personally engineers the rescue of all the girls in the church-run refuge for unwed mothers where he’d found her a home.

Johnson’s time in combat is full of the confusion, terror and unexpected heroism that seem always to characterize the battlefield, no matter what century or who the combatants are. After his capture, he is starved, beaten, worked to the bone, imprisoned in the Japanese equivalent of the Hanoi Hilton, flung into the holds of hell ships, and forced to witness friends’ executions, but through it all he retains the core of his humanity and never loses sight of his captors’. He remembers the small mercies along with the terrible cruelties, and he makes no excuses for seizing every possible advantage in order to survive.

It’s a privilege to read this first-person account from the Greatest Generation. Johnson’s excellent memory for both circumstantial and emotional detail make it a captivating and moving memoir. Do not approach this book expecting a literary masterpiece. Johnson’s workmanlike prose is not aided by the editing, which seems cursory at best (grammatical imprecision and missing punctuation abound). But it’s far better to have this story in slightly rough form than not to have it at all. There have been many World War Two memoirs, but this may well be one of the last to be published. The reason it is remarkable, however, is the reason every such story is remarkable. Each is both unique and universal, and we cannot have too many of them. They remind us how terrible it is when armies of human beings go into battle, and how decisions to send them there must be taken for only the very best of reasons.

Baby of Bataan is available here at Amazon.com

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Privacy Groups Combat “Policy Laundering”

Responding to a new sort of globalization, the American Civil Liberties Union and two affiliated groups have announced an initiative to monitor and publicize the practice whereby governments, in the name of security, make cooperative agreements with one another in order to “escape domestic legal and political controls.”

The new generation of RFID-enabled passports, which the US is instituting for its own citizens and also requiring of other nations with which it has visa-waiver agreements, is an example. The privacy groups say that by presenting the rollout of this technology as the result of an international agreement intended to help fight terrorism, the US State Department can claim that the international community endorses the policy while in reality the other nations have been coerced into going along.

“In more and more areas, we are seeing security agencies pushing anti-privacy measures before international groups and foreign governments instead of through the domestic political process,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “This is the strategy we call policy laundering. The security agencies and law enforcement are ‘going global’ – and so must the protection of civil liberties… Law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies from different nations are increasingly working together out of the public eye to amass new powers.”

Jim Harper, director of information studies at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, has said (in an article in Wired) of the plan to embed RFID chips in passports: “In the U.S., it’s a non-starter politically.” It is difficulties caused by that kind of attitude that the privacy groups say policy laundering is intended to avoid.

Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and a member of the board of Savi Technology (an RFID contractor for the Department of Homeland Security), is one who believes in the use of RFID technology for personal identification. “It’s another security measure embedded in the U.S. economy,” Ridge said. “Biometrics and RFID will make us safer.”

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Chips Off The Old Block

The models are about my height – just under six feet tall – yet seem to tower over me in the elevator. Their posture, their svelteness, their perfect hair and the unearthly regularity of their features gives them the aura of demigoddesses. It’s painfully difficult not to stare at them.

The models are on their way to a shoot at a photography studio located in the same building where I work, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. In fact, this area is known as the Photo District for its concentration of studios and supply houses. But my block has a lot more variety than that would suggest. It is without a doubt the only place in the world where you can find a shooting range (the West Side Rifle & Pistol Range), a strip club, an architect, a major art supply house, and a neogothic church housing a legendary nightclub, all on one block.

There are also more standard businesses: a caterer with a storefront, a couture women’s clothing store, a parking garage. But it’s a noteworthy, newsworthy block, anchored on the west end by Avalon, the nightclub formerly known as the Limelight, Peter Gatien’s notorious den of drug dealing and violence (cf. the recent Macaulay Culkin-Seth Green movie Party Monster.) In the middle of block lies the subdued-looking entrance to the VIP Club, a strip club whose previous owners, according to a recent article in the New York Post, were extorted out of $2.5 million by the Gambino crime syndicate. (These clubs somehow always manage to stay in business, though. Must be the quality of the martinis.) At the eastern end of the block – to make up for all that hard living, I guess – lies a Vitamin Shoppe.

New York City, with its thousands of blocks, is both unfathomably huge and sublimely small. In the very building where I work, a prestigious recording studio – since moved to more spacious quarters elsewhere – birthed Halley DeVestern‘s Sugar Free album. I worked on that album in 1996-97, years before my current day job. We got lunch at the Lemon Lime diner around the corner then; I get lunch there now – but less often, since I’ve started eating healthy. Now I often bring a salad from home and, on nice days, sit in Madison Square Park in the shadow of the New York Life Building’s golden spire. I used to work in that building. I probably used to work in your building, too. I’ll bet you used to work in mine. Let’s have lunch! I’ll fix your computer, and you can sing me a song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]