Friday, December 14, 2007

I know I'm not just speaking for myself here when I point out, with utter dismay, that there was a time when people shared their Christmas spirit with the neighborhood by covering their house, and maybe their shrubbery, in strings of lights, and it was quite beautiful. But holiday tackiness found an opening somewhere and began to seep in: first those wire-frame light reindeer — like, we know that Dancer and Prancer aren't on your front lawn, cause we live in New Jersey and not the Yukon — which gave way to inflatable Santas, ratty plastic Nativity scenes, and cardboard Grinch cut-outs. But maybe two Christmases ago, the neighbors — yours and mine, and you know who I'm talking about — decided they'd snatch all the undeserved holiday attention on the street by leaving a giant inflatable snow-globe in their front yards.

Which is bad enough on its own, but I was in Drug Fair this morning, passed by one of those balloon snow-globes with a price tag on it, and realize that people actually pay money for this gaudy kitsch! A six-foot snow-globe goes for about two-hundred dollars — two-hundred dollars that could theoretically be exchanged for goods and services is instead going to uglying up someone's house, and that makes me very sad. I mean, you can drop a beat-up '88 Oldsmobile with three wheels and one cement brick on your lawn for free. Wrap it up in blinking colored lights for Yuletide; you can even use those mesh net lights if your holiday spirit is only matched by your laziness.

I would go around town with a BB gun, deflating all this crap, but you know... it is Christmas and all.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Completely Impartial Review of the New Museum

I got to check out the New Museum — and let's not start a slapstick routine here, that's the museum's name, okay? — yesterday, about a week after its re-opening and re-imagining. I never had very nice things to say about the old New Museum... er, the previous New Museum, except that admission was only three bucks. The art was nothing memorable, save for one animatronic sculpture on temporary display of a boy fucking a goat, and a piece by Tom Friedman that was a six-inch sphere of cursed space, which is totally cheating. Some of Friedman's other work was less dickish, which is why I can't remember any of it.

I guess they tore the old museum down, quietly: I spend a good deal of time in Soho and blissfully unaware of the move. The new New Museum is, according to the pompous jackass art critic in the Village Voice (and having a last name that's both hyphenated and has an acuté accent ain't helping, Christian), "an instant classic." This dude so wants to sleep with the New Museum. The museum is, from the outside, a stack of precariously-balanced gleaming white boxes, kind of cool and inviting on its own... but the hyper-modern structure lives on the Bowery, a street most notable for its many grunge punk rock clubs and restaurant supply stores, and to say it doesn't fit in is an understatement. Not that I'm particularly fond of the Lower East Side ex-tenement architectural vibe, but the new glass and fiberglass buildings popping up like zits feel like Tim Gunn walking into the Bowery's homeless shelter in his thousand-dollar suit and shiny tie and making fun of what the residents are wearing.

Speaking of which, all the staff at the new New Museum has to wear these black uniforms with, like, leather shoulder patches, and they totally made me think of rebel storm troopers on casual Friday.

The show, "Unmonumental," is the same tired, lazy, pointless sculpture and installations we've come to expect from modern artists, and I guarantee that everybody on display is friends of a friend of a curator. Admission is twelve dollars, which goes to support performance artists walking up and down the street, screaming love poetry "a reflection on the difference between speaking and listening—a kind of confession combining the idiom of politics, the transmission of secrets, and the language of love." Do what I do and bring along a friend who works at one of the city's art museums, is totally into art, and is therefore obligated to go to the New Museum and think deeply about "the Object in the 21st century" anyway. They get an art community free pass plus a guest pass, so it's like I get to be an incomprehensible douche for a day, too!

Like I really need an art museum to do that. ;)

Briefly, the exhibition includes — and I'm not sure that I didn't hallucinate this whole thing — a bike, on top of a pile of fuschia bricks, with bags of rocks hanging off the handlebars, a pole sticking out of its back, a fur drape hanging off the pole and a picture of Mel Gibson taped to the fur.

Normally, there's this moment where I challenge the artists to justify themselves, taking up my time and energy and potential for a MacArthur Genius Grant, but not anymore. The justification is damn futile; the artwork, like the museum itself, is self-absorbed and solipsistic, unaware of anything beyond its own boundaries — like the idea that just maybe, there's some poor guy walking to work on the Bowery, he just wants to sell his restaurant supplies and now this indifferent behemoth is suddenly blinding his eyes and not purchasing a pizza oven. Nothing in the New Museum is the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, for example, celebrating the resplendence of God and beauty and salvation. The pieces here have no context, no story, and they rarely even serve as examples of whatever abstract, abstruse philosophical psychobabble the artist's trying to reflect.

I did, however, like the bathrooms. They had this high-speed hand dryer thing, and it was like all whoooooosh!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Thought Experiments

I picked up Valerie Plame's memoirs at my library — Barnes & Noble — but only made it through ten or so pages before the book became absurdly redacted. I promptly moved on to something more readable. Fair Game cold opens with Plame's months-long job interview at the CIA. I've been interviewing recently, so I can totally relate — unless you're on The Apprentice and your interview's systematically produced for maximum drama and entertainment, all job interviews are more or less the same, evaluative tools for matching candidates to positions. The best and the brightest, they're looking for the same thing whether you're working at Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, or the CIA. (I love their "Now Hiring" page, by the way. Ever since Jennifer Garner started recruiting for them, it's replaced the "NSA for Kids" page as my favorite clandestine agency website.)

None of this surprises me, but according to Plame, the CIA's hiring process (back in her time) included a battery of number-two pencil tests, a Myers-Brigg inventory Myers-Brigg evaluation, some examination — sounds like the ultra-sketchy Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory — where one deciding question was "Do you prefer tall women?" (First, compared to what? And second, people with a little reasoning ability would easily recognize this as a false dilemma.) I'm sure traders at the Carlyle Group and engineers for Halliburton are given the same ridiculous tests, and it goes a long, long way to explaining how the hell we got our army into Iraq.

One question in Plame's interview — I guess this might be important in her line of work — was: What do you do if you're meeting with a contact in a foreign hotel room and the police knock on your door? This kind of stuff — solve this problem — intrigues me, much as I hate it when I get asked these questions in an interview, because the permutations send my mind into a thrilled flurry. I'm still working on the most efficient way to count the windows in New York City. (I wonder if building plans need to be kept on file in City Hall?) Plame's question, and her obvious answer, are great thought experiments (well, thought experiments for me, if not her)...

You'd strip down, hop into bed with the foreign contact, and pretend you're having an affair. But my immediate response: Do people still fall for that? You're sort of relying on the police being incompetent, disposable goofballs to pull the fake affair off. What I've learned about open-ended engineering is that your first answer is almost always the wrong one, even when there are no right and wrong answers... I hate the learning curve, since it usually turns into a real-life mess, but you know.

Live and learn.

Avoid the ass-backwards parts of the world where you'd be stoned for committing adultery. The problem is if the police are looking for you, and they come upon you having sex, they'll still arrest you. I guess you could read the question assuming that the police were looking for your contact, and you'd pretend to be a sweet, innocent thing randomly caught up in international espionage. Really? Hope nobody would check?

Still working on this brain-teaser, but I think it needs to be dealt with on a micro level. Issue one: the police are interested in you. Remedy one: make the police not interested in you. My guess is that the best way to accomplish this is to be a victim, the more pathetic and more in need of the police, the better. Issue two: the police are in the same room as you. Remedy two: not be in the same room as the police. I haven't solved this one yet; running out a window or something seems like a losing proposition, although if the police are going to fall for the illicit affair tactic, I can also see them busting into the room and finding an open window with the curtain blowing around. Issue three: the police are going to take you to jail. Remedy three: get the police to take you somewhere else, or nowhere at all. I don't see any way you'd be staying in the hotel room — maybe if you handcuffed yourself to the bed or something.

My best idea so far would be to drink a bottle of ipecac and spend the next hour or so grossly ill, hoping that your puking all over your captors might be a bit more imperative than whatever intelligence you have. But I like optimal solutions and arbitrage — and yes, the problem is designed to not have an (apparent) optimal solution — but the puzzle still remains. In the academic.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


The Times ran this article, "Class Conflict on the Airlines," complete with accompanying sardonic picture and, hey, were you aware that airlines have been trimming the amenities in coach? Airlines save money by throwing out what used to be essentials — according to the article, United stopped handing out their delicious pretzel mix and saved $650,000, while American Airlines saved $600,000 by scuttling the pillows from their flights. Would this be a good time to point out that United took in $19 billion in revenue last year, and American made $22 billion?

Anyone who's ever flown knows the situation is different in first class, because the airline insists on shuffling the cattle through the luxury zone, just so we can see what we're missing. Lie-flat seats, four-course meals, noise-canceling headphones, while people have literally died from sitting in coach for too long. At least Singapore Airlines is doing something about deep vein thrombosis, restoring some legroom to economy class.

No, I'm just kidding. They're distributing brochures laced with magic blood thinners.

Here's where the free market system fails miserably. United says that eight percent of its fliers make up thirty-six percent of their revenue, and they'd lick those guys' balls all the way from Dulles to Düsseldorf if they asked. So applying some math skills, you have to figure that United's leaving ninety-two percent of their customers — and nearly two-thirds of their revenue — in Seats of DEATH, and taking us for cheap tourist fools buying carefully worded lines about "The passenger who is buying a ticket from us based on price sensitivity — we also want to make sure they have a comfortable flight." I'm not calling bullshit right here, but judging from our nation's hack comedians at open-mic night, there's a market for flights with peanuts, and no one cares to meet it.

The airlines epitomize the trouble with letting corporations do whatever the hell they want in the name of making a dollar. There's a diverse market that gets relegated to the "have" extreme and the "have-not" extreme. I might be willing to take a ten dollar flight on a FedEx cargo jet, but at even economy class prices, someone, somewhere should have to meet certain minimum expectations: that I'll get to my destination as efficiently as humanly possible, and that I won't have to spend eight hours in a Seat of DEATH. I don't think that's a lot to ask, but apparently ninety-two percent of you do.