Some Thoughts on Roger Ebert’s Writing

I recently came across an aphorism which made me smile:

I smiled because – I mean – how many wooden, lifeless bits of prose have you read in your life which were caused by someone taking this idea too far? There’s a reason that this particular type of bad writing is often called “legalistic”: It is a joyless, bloodless, anti-human kind of writing – which is probably part of why you have to pay a lawyer $300 an hour to read it.

Most of the writers that I enjoy reading place their words on the page with a sort of lightness. It feels like someone speaking to you, like someone trying to be understood. If good writing is a sort of magic trick, then a good writer is the magician, the rabbit, and the top hat – all rolled up in one. It is craft combined with the courage to show yourself as you are that lets you pull yourself out of the hat.

It’s a hard thing, but some writers can seemingly do it with ease.
[Read more…]

Here are some items that I came across this week which I felt showed some of the better aspects of our human nature.

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Human Condition

Lauren and I just finished watching “The Human Condition”, a 10 hour Japanese film that shows what can happen to human ideals in a less-than-ideal world.

It was deeply moving and I highly recommend it, but be warned: It takes you into so many bleak emotional places that it makes “Dancer in the Dark” feel like “Singin’ In The Rain” by comparison1.

Maybe that’s why I felt like I wanted to share a few “booster shots of humanity” with you tonight… so here are some items that I came across this week which I think showcase the better aspects of our nature.

“Faces of the Tsunami”

The main character in “The Human Condition” rails against the suffering of those around him while his peers stand around and say “shikata ga nai” (a Japanese idiom for “it can’t be helped”). Writer MIN JIN LEE examines what “shikata ga nai” means to survivors of last year’s devastating disasters in Japan, but the accompanying “Faces of the Tsunami” photo series by photographer DENIS ROUVRE is the part that really captured me. It is a look into the actual human faces of the tragedy and I think you’ll come away from it inspired by the strength and dignity that you see.

What The Tools Are For

There were three bits of technology writing that I saw this week which I thought went beyond the usual “nuts-and-bolts” fare and into far more interesting territory: looking at the human purposes for the tools we use.

GABE WEATHERHEAD wrote this excellent piece which starts off as a straightforward software review before lunging into more personal territory. Regular readers know I am a fan of Gabe’s work and posts like this are a good example of why.

BRETT KELLY shared his own approach to preserving important memories and, in the process, actually shared some of his most important memories with his readers.

Finally, PATRICK RHONE‘s story of his daughter’s first exposure to American commercial television clarified the problems with the TV industry’s business model in a way that some overly-wonky analysis would have likely clouded.

By the way, people who want to show support for humanistic tech writing like this should use the Macdrifter donation page, buy a copy of “Evernote Essentials” or “Keeping it Straight”, or subscribe to the Read & Trust Premium Newsletter (which regularly features Brett and Patrick’s writing).

“Two Splendid Journalists”

It has been an especially bad month for American journalism — first from the loss of ANTHONY SHADID and now with news of the death of MARIE COLVIN. David Remnick wrote a moving tribute to Colvin for the New Yorker and Sherry Ricchiardi for the American Journalism Review pays her respects to both Shadid and Colvin in a piece called “Remembering Two Splendid Journalists”. In it, she shares personal stories about how each reporter tried to make a meaningful impact for people living in the war-torn places that they covered.

I thought this passage was on-point and especially lovely:

“Even in brief conversations, these two journalists forcefully drove home their message: The human condition was a sacred beat. When Shadid drove into an Iraqi village, he went straight to the barber shop or the local mosque. “You can find out everything there if they trust you,” he said. Colvin traveled with Chechen rebels, sleeping in caves with bags of grenades for a pillow. “You eat what they eat, you drink what they drink, you never act like you are above them,” she said.”

Whatever beat you patrol, I think that showing respect for “the human condition” gives your work additional depth and impact. Many thanks to everyone mentioned above for bringing that level of respect to the areas that they cover!

  1. Seriously – one critic said that it “stands as the Grand Canyon of Despair” []

Spotify Search Playlists help you quickly find music that gets your head nodding and makes your ears happy!

This article originally appeared at

I’m a fan of Spotify, a freemium music service which gives listeners access to a collection of over 15 million songs. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy music, but its library is so large that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with options when it comes to putting together playlists or finding new artists.

One solution: “Spotify Search Playlists”. Here are two search tips which can help you quickly find music that gets your head nodding and makes your ears happy.

[Read more…]

This article originally appeared at

I wasn’t aware of journalist Anthony Shadid until I learned of his recent death, but I found myself inspired by his work and by the recollections of his peers:

Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the Washington Post (and more recently the New York Times), Shadid died at the age of 43 of an asthma attack while on assignment in Syria, prompting an outpouring of grief from his colleagues and his readers. He also wrote several acclaimed books about the Middle East, including the soon-to-be released “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East”.

Shadid went beyond the standard practice of documenting the actions of the powerful by also telling “smaller” stories about the daily experiences of ordinary people, earning his reputation for putting a human face on some of the Middle East’s political and social complexities.

Of his work, Amy Sullivan of The Atlantic said “There are great reporters and there are great writers. And then there are the rare few who inspire awe by being both.”He was the best of our breedsaid TIME’s Bobby Ghosh, going on to express a sentiment which I saw echoed by many others:  Shadid’s talent, combined with his lack of ego, made him one of the finest journalists of his generation.

To humanize something, I think, requires a deep well of both humility and empathy. It is the act of making one person’s interior experience visible to the rest of us. With professional skill and with personal kindness, Anthony Shadid made a life’s work out of helping people understand each another better. It seems to me that his ability to write “poetry on deadline” won’t soon be replaced, but perhaps it’s that spirit of generosity towards both the people he wrote about and the people he worked with which will be his most enduring legacy.

AIR released their latest album earlier this week — and it’s a new soundtrack for a 110 year old movie masterpiece.

Best known for 1998’s “Moon Safari” and their musical contributions to films such as The Virgin Suicides, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel (a.k.a., the French electronic duo AIR) released their latest album earlier this week — and it’s a new soundtrack for a 110 year old movie masterpiece.

“Le Voyage Dans La Lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”) is often referred to as the first science fiction film in history. Directed by Georges Méliès, it was originally released in 1902 in black and white and, incredibly enough, also in a hand-colored version. The only hand-colored print known to exist was rediscovered in 1993 by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, who found the original nitrate print in such a dilapidated state that it was said to resemble a hockey puck. A frame-by-frame restoration began in 1999 and, with a little digital assist from the folks at Technicolor, it was finally completed in 2010.

To go along with the restoration, AIR composed a new score and decided to release an expanded version of it as an album (Available at Amazon Music Store and iTunes Store). On its own, it’s another solid bit of work by Godin and Dunckel – but seeing it in context with the film made it even more enjoyable for me.1 The imagery feels like a dream: Méliès idea of a space launch was, after all, to have a row of identically-dressed women slide an artillery shell containing the explorers into a cannon and then fire it like a bullet into the eye of the “Man in the Moon”.

AIR’s fun, modern score helps Méliès’s dream feel not so far away to us, and I think that’s kind of an amazing thing: Over a century old, “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” is a window into a time when the moon’s surface could only be imagined and the idea that it could ever be known was, itself, a flight of fantasy. Its restoration (and with AIR’s contribution — rebirth) is an experience certainly bound to stir modern imaginations and one that’s well-worth checking out.

  1. I guarantee you’d be hard-pressed to find a fight scene between Wizard/Astronomers and an army of Moon Creatures with a funkier backbeat than “Sonic Armada”. []
This article originally appeared at

“The Artist” is a modern French interpretation of an old black-and-white silent movie, which is to say that you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a film idea which would have to travel a more difficult road in order to find a wide American audience.1

However unlikely the concept, though, “The Artist” is poised to do just that. Michel Hazanavicius, previously best known for his O.S.S. series of Spy Parodies, leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo into new territory with a movie which manages to be both a tribute to a film-making era gone by and also one of the most emotionally potent movies that I have seen in some time.

Many critics have been happy to pull out the “Silence is Golden” trope in their reviews, anticipating the almost certain Oscar nominations for the film and its cast (not to mention for the wonderful score by Ludovic Bource). They’re right to do so. “The Artist” has some incredibly nuanced performances and, believe it or not, one of the most compelling ones is by a dog. Uggie is a Jack Russell Terrier who steals every scene he appears in, prompting an ad-hoc Twitter campaign to get him an Oscar nomination as well.2

Watching Dujardin and Bejo tap dance together was also a revelation to me: The wordless joy that these scenes express is the real thing, not an ironic, tongue-in-cheek gesture or some sort of “Hey — Look at me dance in the 1920’s!” exercise that some of Hollywood’s recent forays into the era have produced. The film’s American production design team also really nailed the look and feel of the time, adding so many fun little grace notes for the audience to pick out.3

And yet with all the tap dancing, period artifacts, and performing dogs, “The Artist” manages to remain a serious film about love and pride. It is, without a doubt, my favorite film of 2011.

  1. Please — Don’t consider this an invitation to submit your own “Springtime For Hitler”-esque suggestions. []
  2. This would be well-deserved and a return to Oscar’s origins, if you believe the story about Rin-Tin-Tin receiving the most votes for Best Actor in the Award’s first year. []
  3. A favorite: Watching Dujardin’s character, slinking away from an auction where all of his personal movie star memorabilia was sold, almost get hit by a car in front of a marquee which reads “Lonely Star” []

A Complete List of the 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s Personal Library at the University of Texas at Austin Archive.

This article originally appeared at

DFW Annotated Copy of Don DeLillo's Players

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace's annotated copy of Don DeLillo's Players. Harry Ransom Center.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE was working on a novel when he committed suicide in September 2008. Coinciding with its posthumous release as The Pale King, the University of Texas at Austin has opened its Archive of Writer David Foster
— a special collection of his notes, manuscripts, and personal effects. Made up of 34 document boxes and 8 oversize folders, the collection has received as much attention for what it reveals about Wallace as a reader as for the window it provides into his creative process as a writer.

The Archive has about 300 books from Wallace’s personal library, many of them substantially annotated. I decided to make a complete list for myself by searching the special collection via the University’s online card catalog… and I thought other people might also be curious about what was on his bookshelf.

So for the convenience of bookworms everywhere, I am sharing it in the table below.1 There’s a really interesting blend of material and topics here so, if you’ve been looking for some good book recommendations, you should be set for a while!

[Read more…]

  1. I did my best to make the corresponding Amazon links point to the correct translation / edition of the work in question. []

Was it good for you, too? 😀

Music-Related Links for Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Some Companies Know How To Do “Customer Service” Right!

Thought I’d quickly share a couple of good experiences:


I’ve owned an external battery/hardshell case for my iPhone called Mophie Juice Pack Air since it first came out. For me — someone who tries to leave their laptop at home whenever possible — it’s been a fantastic purchase, enabling me to work from my phone by extending my battery life (and providing some sturdy protection as well!).

But no product design is perfect. Several people have dinged the Juice Pack Air on its page because, it seems, that its Achilles’ Heel is the micro-USB port used to charge it and to allow your iPhone to sync with your computer. Lucky for me — my problem was only an “intermittent connection” which would start a sync with iTunes every time I touched the USB cable. Annoying… but not a show-stopper.

Still, it was annoying enough to contact Mophie about it. They immediately sent instructions on how to return the Juice Pack Air — along with a pre-paid shipping label. After unsuccessfully digging around for a receipt, I decided to roll the dice and send it in anyways. Even though the product had been released less than a year ago and, thus, was still within the warranty period, some companies would have sent it back to me saying “Sorry — Can’t help you without a receipt!” or “We’ll fix it… for (insert amount that you don’t want to pay here)“.

To Mophie’s credit, they weren’t looking for a technicality to avoid providing warranty service. They were looking to take care of their customer. The day after they received my defective battery, they sent out my replacement.

And speaking of Amazon…

Yesterday, there was a great thread on Ask Metafilter where someone was asking for recommendations of music similar to Miles Davis’s score for a movie called Ascenseur pour l’échafaud or, as it’s known in English, Elevator to the Gallows.

I’m as much a fan of good, smoky, Film Noir jazz as anyone, so I took note of the suggestions and then went over to to buy some MP3s! First selection…. Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall.

And, for the first time since I started buying music through Amazon, something went wrong. The download never started and, when I went to my Account page, it claimed that I had already downloaded my album. A quick email to customer service receive a quick reply in return:

I’m sorry there was a problem downloading your recent MP3 purchase.

I’m not sure why this happened, but I want to be sure you get the album you ordered. I’ve restored access to the download. Please try to download from Your Media Library on

Pretty straightforward and, more importantly, written in human language! They didn’t make me read through a bunch of cut-and-pasted boilerplate language about how my business “is valuable to them”… only to then make me jump through a bunch of hoops before even trying to fix my issue. There was a person on the other end who understood my problem and what it would take to resolve it.

Anyhow, for as much airspace on the internet is devoted to venting when companies fail us, I felt that a little “counter-programming” was in order. Companies, after all, are made up of individual people — and people that make an effort to “do the right thing” should get a little attention as well!