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Up in the Air

December 27, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s hardly news that we don’t get out to the movies much. But we did yesterday. We saw Up in the Air. And it was superb, the rare movie we see that I feel good about seeing when we walk out.

I wasn’t too happy about seeing it when we walked in. We went to one of the downtown multiplexes and found ourselves in a small screening room. I didn’t imagine that a highly regarded movie in its third week of release would be relegated to such a small room. I didn’t count, but in picturing the room now, I figure there were about 8 rows. We sat in row 4 on the aisle. If we wanted to sit off the aisle, we would have had to sit in row 2. And when the ads came on, they were blasting. You know Dennis Haysbert, the actor who played President Palmer in 24 and was the lead in The Unit? He appeared in one of those Allstate Insurance ads, 10 feet high, just 20 feet away, and shouting at us. It remains a mystery to me why we have to watch ads at the movie theater. I remember seeing Taxi Driver at a movie theater in downtown Leeds in the summer of 1977, but only after sitting through ad after ad. I didn’t realize I was seeing our future. I just thought it was one of the oddities of those quirky English.

Anyway, after 25 minutes of ads and previews, the movie did start, and what a joy it was! George Clooney was wonderful, of course, but so too were his two co-stars, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. And he was almost always on screen with one or the other of them, ensuring one great moment after another. I will happily see it again. As an added bonus, the movie makes me eager to get on a plane.

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Categories: Movies

They’re Watching Us!

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Six years ago next month, we began the process of buying a new car for Gail. We soon settled on a particular model, and then had to decide on features and color, given those the dealer could get in. We were somewhat flexible on color. Our principal criterion was that we didn’t want the navigation package. We wanted the other standard multi-feature package, the one that gives you heated front seats and leather interior and a few other “luxury” items. But we didn’t want the navigation package for three reasons: we didn’t think we needed it — we sort of know our way around; why pay for something you don’t need?; but most important, Gail didn’t want the car to be equipped with GPS. I kept tellling her this could be useful, but she was adamant that she didn’t want them watching her. Paranoia or reality? Who knows? Remember the Mel Gibson character in Conspiracy Theory? He turned out to be right. Why bet against him?

Since most of the cars the dealer brought in had the navigation feature, we would have to wait. No problem. Our salesman identified a particular vehicle on its way from Japan and earmarked it for us. Or so he said.

Weeks went by. Eventually he said something had gone wrong and the car wasn’t coming to the dealer. Or maybe it was going to another customer. Whatever. We found whatever he said a little hard to take seriously. Whatever the issue, he was back to telling us that a car with everything we wanted was now available, and as a bonus, it had navigation too! He seemed to have forgotten the whole point, that we were waiting a month so we could do without navigation. We decided to take a look. And then, great car bargainer that I am, I managed to get them to agree to a big discount on the navigation. Gail, in turn, sucked it up and decided she could live with GPS.

Five years and 9+ months later, she couldn’t be happier. She has struck up a friendship with the disembodied woman who tells her how to get places. She finds the navigation more useful than she ever imagined. But best of all, with navigation and the accompanying screen in the dash, you get a rear camera that shows what’s behind you when the car is in reverse. The car I bought three years ago has this too. One quickly comes to appreciate it.

Are they watching? We moved beyond that.

Silly us. As you may have read last week, thanks to the work of Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian,

Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.

Read more in his post on the subject. See also emptywheel’s post two days ago, in which she points out that Sprint may have made a significant amount of money from this service. She concludes, “You see, these companies only look like telecom companies. Really, they’re telecom and surveillance companies. The question is, how much telecom is it, and how much surveillance?” And see Scott Horton’s post yesterday at Harper’s. I’ll conclude with one passage from Horton.

In 1999, Congress passed a law requiring annual reporting of “pen registers and tap and trace devices” so that Congress could monitor the use of new technologies for electronic surveillance. This reporting requirement is imposed on the Department of Justice. However, Soghoian notes (I believe correctly) that the Justice Department has simply ignored the law and the obligations it imposes. This is one area in which the Justice Department apparently feels free to do what it wishes, including violating criminal statutes, whenever it feels national security is challenged. It is also free to rope telecommunications service providers into collaboration, assuring them that it will use its law enforcement monopoly to insure that criminal statutes they are jointly violating will not be enforced. This was the criminal enterprise engineered by the Bush Justice Department to subvert FISA. But so far there is little evidence of the Obama Administration charting a different course, or insisting on accountability for their predecessors.

Categories: Government, Law, Movies, Security

Metropolitan Diary

October 14, 2009 Leave a comment

2001

I love the NYT Metropolitan Diary column, which appears on Mondays in the New York Region section. (This puts it in the back pages of the first section of the national edition, a page or two before the editorials.) This is the feature in which people write in with cute little tales of something that happened on the bus, or in the train station, or wherever. Dog stories, kid stories, tourist stories, overheard cell phone conversation stories. Heartwarming stories all, the sort that make you glad to be human. (Except when the writer has to end the story with the worst of all phrases, “Only in New York.” Sigh. I mean really. That’s so beside the point. And anyway, let us be the judges. And by the way, if you’ve never lived outside New York, how would you even know? What kinds of lives do you think the rest of us live? And I’m a New Yorker, mind you, but I have no patience for that chauvinism.)

But let me not get distracted. Here’s what I was going to say. Every so often, when I get to the end of a diary entry, there’s a surprise in store. It’s written by someone famous. Or at least someone well known in his or her field, whose name I happen to recognize. Someone who, despite fame, has taken the trouble to send in his or her own cute little story. I love them.

Take this week for instance. As I often do, I looked online for the diary just after 9:00 Sunday night. No waiting to bring in the paper in the morning. So there I was, reading this week’s diary, which has five entries, and when I got to the end of the fourth one, the author’s name leapt out at me. Keir Dullea! Is that cool or what?

You don’t know Keir Dullea? Well, okay, so maybe you have to be a certain age, or a film buff. A film buff I’m not, but I am that certain age, and though I was never too excited about 2001: A Space Odyssey, I did see it during its initial release in the theaters in 1968, and I’ve watched bits of it on TV. The scene I always think of first is the one on the spaceship as HAL (the computer) and Bowman (the astronaut played by Dullea) go at it. No doubt Dullea wishes he were known for more than that one role, but it’s that role that makes his name instantly recognizable to so many of us. And now, thanks to his contribution to Metropolitan Diary, I know a little more about him.

Categories: Movies, Newspapers

Video Calls

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment

brooksmother

Albert Brooks’ Mother is high on the list of our favorite movies. After watching it years ago, we immediately added one of its phrases to our vocabulary: protective ice. This is the phrase that the Debbie Reynolds character — the mother — uses to describe the crystallized layer of ice on top of the ice cream in an old container that her son — the Albert Brooks character — takes out of her freezer. We remember with equal fondness her failed efforts to use a new video phone. Her performance would convince anyone that however the technology evolves, we won’t be making video calls in the future.

Then came Skype. And iChat. And a variety of other programs to make free video calls via computer — free, that is, once one has a computer and high-speed internet access. Who doesn’t make video calls now?

Well, we didn’t. Our two most likely skype partners, my sister (in Paris) and Joel (in Boston), weren’t too keen to do it. Gail skypes from time to time with our friend Carol in Edinburgh. But my sister and I still use the phone, or email, and Joel prefers regular phone calls or texting. He may figure that the less we see of him, the better.

But that has suddenly changed, now that Joel is in Grenoble. Given the cost of international calls on his iPhone, even after we added the international calling option with AT&T, it just makes more sense to use the internet. As a result, we have had two video conversations with him in the last ten days, using both Skype and Apple’s video iChat.

No big deal, I know. But what interested me in thinking about our chat yesterday was a completely natural occurrence that almost surely wouldn’t have happened in an audio-only call. Joel is living with a host family. Unlike in the standard host model, his family consists of just a single individual, a young man with a two-bedroom home. What happened during yesterday’s chat was that as we talked with Joel, the host’s girlfriend came in, and Joel asked her if she wanted to say hello. She walked closer to his computer and there we were, on screen, saying hi to her. She speaks French, of course. I said a few words in poor French that she may or may not have understood. Then they called her boyfriend (Joel’s host) in, and we met him too. We didn’t say much. They said goodbye after a few moments and left us with Joel.

Can you imagine how weird this would have been if we were on the phone with Joel? Had his host or the girlfriend come in, he wouldn’t have suggested that we say hello. The difference, no doubt, is that people are accustomed to casual hellos and goodbyes in person, with visual cues allowing introductions to be made while minimizing the need for any substantive verbal conversation. That’s how it felt yesterday. Just a normal introduction to new people. On the phone, in contrast, we would have had to rely on words alone, and even without the language barrier, that would have been awkward.

We look forward to seeing our new acquaintances in person next month, when we visit Joel in Grenoble.

Hobbes and Small Cars

July 21, 2009 Leave a comment
Ford Aspire

Ford Aspire

I’ve discovered Eric Felten. Felten wrote the weekly column How’s Your Drink for the Saturday Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal until last month. Since I essentially never drink cocktails, I hadn’t paid much attention. I happily read Raymond Sokolov’s Eating Out column and Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s Tastings column. But cocktails? Nah.

Alas, I now realize that I’ve been missing the work of a fine writer. Read more…

Categories: Automobiles, Design, Movies, Music