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Tricks of Memory

I was corresponding with a college friend who wrote the single best line I ever read in my school newspaper, The Tech. He was writing about the old Burton House dormitory, as a member of Burton in Exile, just before the students returned to campus and their newly remodeled home. He was praising the now-disappeared facility:

The carpets, when wet, smelled dankly of old beer.

I really do think that line was why I became a journalist. I had occasion to write him last week, and he wrote back with his favorite line of mine. It came from the annual parody issue of the paper, The Daily Reamer:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and I think it was Barnes in the Sunday Times that said: "What a fine movie this isn't." And certainly, he could have said it no better than I.

It is funny what we remember, no? I barely recalled my line that stuck with him; I don't know if he could have quoted his own line about the carpet.

Which proves again a contention I have made numerous times before: any incident in life with two participants will produce at least two wildly different memories. As Tom Lehrer once said, life is like a sewer, you get out of it what you put into it. And so, what we remember of an occasion is an amalgam of what actually happened, how we felt that day, about that person, about that event, and, of course, everything else that happened in our lives up to that point. Not to mention that our memory of it, unless inscribed almost instantly in a journal or publication, is a product of everything that happened since.

And, having once been a journal keeper (mostly in my freshman year of MIT), what I found when I went back is a giant mound of trivia. The events that I still tell of today, the ones that I consider epochal and have polished into cherished anecdotes, either make no appearance in the contemporaneous journal, or a barely recognizable one. I am sure, for example, that my freshman advisor told me I needed to quit the newspaper, or else I was in the "twilight of a mediocre academic career." He was right, of course, but I thought so little of the incident at the time that I did not record it. Does that mean I made it up? I don't think so, even though, when I called him in 1985 (14 years after the fact) he wasn't completely certain he'd said it. "It sounds like something I'd say," was as far as he would go.

Clark Smith remembers, to this day, me saying, as I succumbed to yet another temptation to skip class, "Wish-wash, Wish-wash. I don't know whether to sleep in a bed or a bowl." A momentary bon mot from 1970, but it stuck with him for decades. I hope I really did say it; it sounds kind of clever, in a self-deprecating way, don't you think?

This, of course, is the advantage of being a writer. If you can hold onto a copy of what you're written (or if you're lucky enough to have gone to MIT, where all the archives are on the Internet), the words last forever, and if you begin to doubt what you wrote, you can go back and look again.

You know, at one point I was sure there was a point in this essay somewhere. Now I'm not so sure...

Must See Video


You must see this video, featuring, well, Opie, Sheriff Taylor, Richie Cunningham and the Fonz, supporting Obama. Sweet, gentle, cool and truly impressive! Thank you Ron Howard




by Craig Reynolds

Like the stock market, the length of Technobriefs continues to sink to historic lows...

TempestTeaPlanet: a cool, innovative, family oriented game for PLAYSTATION3 was about to have it highly anticipated launch when suddenly the emergency brakes were applied regarding the lyrics to a song played in the background during gameplay. Some say Sony was insensitive to use the music, some say it overreacted to the controversy: Sony recalls LittleBigPlanet over Quran quote in music, LittleBigPlanet Qur'an music track controversy intensifies, Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser? and LittleBigPlanet Musician Discusses Controversial Song, Islamic Law.

Security: shortly after its launch Security Flaw Is Revealed in T-Mobile’s Google Phone. Interesting ideas to create secure high tech paper ballots: Encrypting ballots: A really secret ballot.

Technobits: Study finds leukaemia drug can halt, reverse effects of MS ---Internet, Cell Phones Keep Families Together, Pew Finds --- 5 Early Recommendation Technologies That Could Shake Up Their Niches --- 40 brilliant Gmail hints, hacks and secrets --- 10 Hypnotic Gadgets You Just Can't Stop Looking At.

What Just Happened?

4 stars out of 5

Robert DeNiro is a very versatile actor. You've seen him excel in funny mode, you've seen him excel in serious mode. This is one of those rare films where you can see him in both modes. It was showing on exactly 36 screens in the whole country, so you'd better not blink or you'll miss it. Lucky for me, one of those 36 screens was a half hour away in Berkeley. If you love movies, there are still a few places in the country it pays to live near. When the studio opens a $25 million film on 36 screens, you might get the impression they don't think much of its chances. Which is too bad. DeNiro places a movie producer, and Bruce Willis portrays an insane... Bruce Willis. It is one of those "inside Hollywood" films Hollywood can't resist making, despite the generally dismal record of such films. Even Robert Altman's The Player only grossed $21 million after costing $8 million to make. I don't see $75 million in this film's future. What I do see is two very entertaining hours, with some excellent acting, funny dialog and stingingly painful parodies of Hollywood behavior. I love it. I hope you do too.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Happy-Go-Lucky

4 stars out of 5

British writer/director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Naked, Secrets & Lies) has created a small, charming film that portrays a few months in the life of an exuberantly optimistic and free-spirited 30-year-old London schoolteacher, "Poppy" Cross. Sally Hawkins (Cassandra's Dream, The Painted Veil) is a delight as Poppy, deftly balancing the childlike aspects of her personality with empathy, perspicacity, and wisdom well beyond her years. Throughout the film Polly is confronted by people and situations that challenge her attitude, but she prevails - the beauty of Happy-Go-Lucky is in its clear-eyed, unsentimental representation of these events. This is a rare film, one that kept an involuntary smile on my face throughout much of its length.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Synecdoche, New York

2 stars out of 5

There is no arguing the intelligence, imagination, and inventiveness of writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). Here, the creativity starts with the title - both a figure of speech where the whole substitutes for a part (or vice versa) and a play on the name of the film's starting location, Schenectady - and imbues every aspect of Synecdoche. Time dissolves. Reality and dreams merge. Characters appear as cartoons on television. People buy and live in houses that are on fire. A flower tattoo dies and its petals fall off the arm it adorns. Life is staged as a play, and actors are cast as the film's characters, who in turn cast others to play themselves. Kaufman muses on the meaning of life, and wrestles with fears of all sorts - death, failure, loneliness, failure, etc. On and on it goes, for an interminable and wearying two-plus hours. While it provides plenty of food for thought and discussion, Synecdoche ultimately sinks into a sludge of self-indulgence, incomprehensibility, and incoherence.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Changeling

3.5 stars out of 5   

Changeling is a perfect example of how excellence in many of the film-making crafts does not necessarily translate into an extraordinary movie-going experience. There are very few nits to pick with the work of director Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Million-Dollar Baby, Unforgiven), screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the science fiction show "Babylon 5"), and their talent technical support team. The ever-glamorous Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart, Mr & Mrs. Smith) overcomes impossibly-billowy lips that distract in every one of her scenes and gives an Oscar-guaranteed performance. She plays Christine Collins, a woman in late-20s Los Angeles who engaged in a brutal real-life battle with the corrupt LAPD of that era over her missing nine-year-old son. Changeling, typical of Eastwood's increasingly dark work, is a harrowing and grim portrayal of the many embodiments of evil in man. It is a film easy to respect and admire, but one I found curiously difficult to relate to and to be engaged by.

Letters: Dan Grobstein File

Dan Grobstein File

  • Paul Krugman writes:
    A tale of two columns
    Yesterday, as I was working on something else, I happened to come across something that reminded me of an interesting contrast. As everybody knows, the general rap on me is that while I may be a good economist, I’m just too shrill and one-sided as a columnist.
    Anyway, you can see the difference between what I do and what’s considered balanced and respectable by comparing
    this with this. [Krugman compares his Katrina column to David Broder's]
  • The term-paper writing business: Dumb Clients
  • quote:
    John McCain's on my teevee telling me he'll cut the capital gains tax in half.

    Uh, yeah, that will help your campaign. I'm gonna vote for the guy who will cut taxes on my housing gains and stock portfolio appreciation. Oh, wait...
  • These he-man get-the-government-off-my-back, but heaven-forbid-that- we-try-to-actually-help-people-by-government-action people really piss me off. Glad this is getting a little play.

    Andrew Tobias quote:
    The real spread-the-wealth-income-redistribution-welfare state is Alaska. It takes wealth from the oil companies and sends big checks to every citizen in the state – even to people who pay no taxes! Even to people who don’t work!

    On top of that, unlike Ohio, say, which gets back less than half a buck in federal assistance for every dollar paid in federal taxes, Alaska gets back more like five times what it pays.

    Alaska is seriously on the dole – from states like New York.
    links to this data
  • Andrew Sullivan linked to this flyer distributed in Dallas the day Kennedy was assassinated, to make a point about political hate talk (pals with terrorists?)
  • Hurry up and follow Andrew Sullivan's link to an amazing David Sedaris commentary on undecided voters, before The New Yorker, as is its wont, takes it off the Internet. I'm putting up the Sullivan link in case you dally, because he picked the best line in the column.

Like A Forest Fire

Now, I'm no economist, but I do have a Bachelor of Science degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And one of the things I am sure we learned about was creative destruction. The Free Market only works when there is the possibility of failure--when it can engage in the creative destruction of ending one business so the capital is freed up to start another. If there is no chance of failure, risk is not properly weighted in decisions.

Historically, we suffered from something called the "business cycle," periodic contractions of the economy that wrung out excess and incompetence. Since 1929, most Western industrialized countries--call them the G7--have managed their economies to reduce the severity of the business cycle. It occurs to me, as it does to many, that we are doing this again at present. It reminded me of something I couldn't put my finger on. Until this week, when I was listening to coverage of the efforts to fight the wildfires near Los Angeles. The "control" of the business cycle seems similar to me to fire suppression, and I fear the results may be similar.

If you're paying attention, you realize that the U.S. policy of wildfire suppression that has been in effect for a little more than a century has some terrible side effects. A forest can remain healthy only if the dead wood and debris on the forest floor are periodically burned off, allowing new growth. Fire suppression makes forest fires unimaginably worse because of the huge accumulation of dead wood. Fires are hotter and harder to control because we don't allow periodic, smaller fires. Some foresters now propose controlled burns.

Do you see where this is heading? Control of the business cycle prevents the greedy and incompetent from being forced out of business. The result is a lot of duff on the floor of the economy. A lot of deadwood hasn't been removed for more than 70 years. I believe it is possible we are witnessing the result.

Maybe the equivalent of a controlled burn is a decision by capitalist governments to allow a wider swing in the business cycle--to clear out more of the trouble. As I said, I'm not an economist. But it makes sense to me, and right now, not a lot of what's going on makes sense to me.