25 August 2016

Hell or High Water

I was provoked by this review of the movie Hell or High Water by Richard Brody. In the same review, he wrote about War Dogs, which I have not seen and know nothing about (as opposed to Hell or High Water, which I saw and admired); he says both movies demonstrate "exemplary badness." What he means by this seems to be that they are clockwork entertainments, not a piece out of place, predictable in certain ways, and without eccentricity (except the couple he identifies and immediately discounts). He seems to be criticizing them for being overwritten, too driven by their (good) intentions, failing to give their performers room to create.

He puts these movies in the same category with The Big Short and Spotlight, two of my favorite of 2015--which also happen to be movies with missions.  I didn't see Hell or High Water as a movie with a mission; just a caper with a satisfying backdrop and a satisfying emotional hook.

Unlike Brody, I didn't find the actors' performances incapacious (Brody is careful to make an exception for Jeff Bridges--everybody adores Jeff Bridges); most of them succeeded in intriguing me. Throughout the movie I found myself nodding at the dialogue, thinking to myself, This guy can write.

Maybe that means the movie was overwritten, but it was pleasurably overwritten. I feel that way about some of the Coen brothers movies, too; certainly about Mamet movies,

I feel funny writing enthusiastically about a movie that, I admit, isn't great. But I do think it is good.  That is, it tells an interesting story well. It engages and transports the viewer. I agree that Jeff Bridges is outstanding in it. He has such a charismatic presence that he's outstanding in everything; like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, or the living Mark Rylance, when he's on screen, he's all you want to pay attention to. But unlike some movies I can recall--in which, when the charismatic actor left the screen I wanted to leave the theater--I remained invested in the film even when the story turned to the two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster.

While Brody's review of these films objects to their overt politics, a few months ago I came across another negative Brody review of a movie I liked, The Lobster, which criticized it for the opposite reason: he seemed to think a Greek director had no business making a movie that failed to reflect the Greek political situation.

I guess I just am not going to agree with this critic.

27 July 2016

Great Andrew Yang exhibit at MCA

Andrew Yang's current exhibit at MCA Chicago is both beautiful and thought-provoking. It is one of my favorite kinds of contemporary art--both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing. Yang has a background in science as well as art and holds positions at both the Field Museum of Natural History and the School of the Art Institute, His work combines these dual interests, which many would find mutually exclusive, in explorations of cosmology and natural history that remind us that human beings and our culture are also part of the universe studied by scientists, whether we're studying (for example) chemistry, geology, or astronomy.

In one piece, Stella's Stoichiometry (all things being equal, 6 lbs 3 oz.) (2012), Yang beautifully arranges substances representing the chemical composition of his newborn daughter in glass receptacles. In another, A beach (for Carl Sagan), Yang represents the Milky Way with a scale model made of piles of sand--seven tons of sand; one grain for every star (assuming 100 billion stars, a low-end estimate).

Yang's work tends to juxtapose items that we generally don't think of together (like lava flows and human placentas, as in placenta/lava (2011), so we notice similarities we might never have looked for, and wonder about their coincidence. While we have likely studied geology and biology separately in school, some unspoken relationship between the two seems apparent here.

Similarly, in the installation the Way within (2016), Yang has arranged a large quantity of collected stones, shells, fossils, and manmade objects. Confronted with this miscellany, we wonder about the relationships between these objects--why they belong together, or don't.

The exhibit opened yesterday and closes 31 December.  I look forward to returning frequently.

29 June 2016

Life without a Landline

I didn't actually turn off our landline until late last week.  I was a bit scared to.  After sending a notice to our friends and family, I changed our phone number with our credit card companies and a few other places but I kept worrying that I'd forgotten something important.

Now that the landline is gone, it's a bit quieter at home.  We used to get several spam calls each day (marketing calls, surveys, political and charitable solicitations); now we don't get any.  When I first opened my Google Voice account there were a few spam texts, but after I blocked those senders we were not bothered again.

One thing that annoyed me about not having a landline was needing to carry my phone around the apartment. I generally keep my phone in a purse, not my pocket.  I don't always have a pocket.

Then I remembered reading about connect to cell cordless phones. These phones use Bluetooth to link with your cell so it can stay in one place charging and you use the cordless handsets strategically placed around your home to make and receive calls. You don't have to have a landline to use them. I ended up buying a VTech model and it is working well for my phone. Unfortunately, even though it is supposed to be able to connect to two different cell phones and even appears to do so (the linking process goes smoothly), Victor's phone doesn't make the VTech handset ring.

Not a big deal, though, since Victor is used to carrying his cell phone everywhere.

We haven't had much occasion to use Google Voice yet, but I did give the number to a department store salesperson a couple weeks ago and thus had an opportunity to experience this cool feature in which Googlebrain transcribes voicemail and texts it to you.

The transcription was perfect!  We are definitely living in the future!

15 June 2016

Caught by Sideshow Theatre

We saw Sideshow Theatre's Caught at the Victory Gardens theater last weekend. While we didn't enjoy this one as much as the two other Sideshow productions we've seen (Idomeneus and Stupid Fucking Bird), we found ourselves discussing it a good deal afterwards--it's a tricky play--not at all obvious what it "means."

The set includes a selection of what appears to be contemporary Chinese dissident art, which the audience is encouraged to walk on the stage and view as if the stage is a gallery. Afterwards, the artist is introduced (we may have seen the recent New Yorker profile of him) and gives a talk reflecting on his artmaking, which led to a stint in a Chinese prison. Then we see a conversation among the artist and the writer of the New Yorker profile and her editor. There are concerns about whether elements of the artist's story are true.

This is followed by a conversation between the actor who played the New Yorker profile writer and the young Chinese woman who wrote the preceding scene and actually created all of the artwork on the stage. The artist-playwright references real-life conflations of expectations of truth with fiction such as Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and fake-memoirist James Frey. She talks about how American ideas of "truth" are different from those of other cultures and how proud we are of own "truthfulness." However, she wonders whether our fixation on facts enables us to ignore more substantial issues. The conversation is at first friendly and then fraught, as the theoretical jargon spouted by the artist-playwright completely confounds the actor, who just wants to know what the point of it all is.

The final scene involves two Chinese-Americans at home (the actors include the one who played the male dissident artist in the beginning and the female artist-playwright in the previous scene). These characters have created everything that preceded this scene in tribute to a dissident artist--their mentor--who died in a Chinese prison. After they congratulate themselves on an excellent performance they begin to quarrel about proper interpretations of their mentor's legacy and eventually realize that they each had relationships with the mentor that the other didn't know about. The mentor fooled them both.

So the play is very obviously (perhaps too obviously) about how we get hung up on "truth." And as we watched it I think we felt that it really was much too obvious.

But in retrospect the way each scene builds on what happened before--rather like covering over an onion, instead of  unpeeling it--does make you seriously reflect. Throughout, you are sort of wondering--is this really the play now?  Is that really the artist?  Is there really such a person?  Is the art real, or was it just made up for this play? (Throughout, the assertion that the show is a collaboration with a gallery is repeated in various iterations.)  What does that even mean? As the artist-playwright would say, it's not the point. Afterwards you're replaying it all in your head, wondering whether or when what's true really matters.

Very thought provoking play.  Well worth seeing.

10 June 2016

The School of Life

I just discovered the School of Life. Recently I read one of its publications, How to Worry Less about Money, which I found surprisingly helpful, It was more like a philosophy book than a self-help book, which you would think would make it less useful, but actually when it comes to worrying, philosophy is extremely helpful, because it is all about how to think about things. (When you worry, you are often thinking about things the wrong way.)

The School of Life is something I wish were headquartered in Chicago instead of London. It purports to be about building emotional intelligence, but it's basically a consulting philosophy business. There's a Youtube channel that includes videos about Plato, Doestoevsky, and (a favorite of mine) Secrets of Happiness in 60 Seconds. You can book (pun intended) a bibliotherapist to get a reading prescription for what ails you. And you can scan the calendar and wish you lived in London to be able to take advantage of the in-person program. Some of it is too targeted to corporate customers for my taste, but many of the offerings sound just wonderful. For example, "How to Stay Calm," "Mastering the Art of Kindness," and "Drawing as Therapy."

It's exhilarating to imagine that a business like this can thrive--that there are enough people interested in enlarging their worldview. For people who can't--or don't want to--enter an academic philosophy program, and for those wrestling with a wide range of personal and social crises and concerns, the School of Life offers injections of philosophy designed to address the underlying issues.

I look forward to exploring more of what's available on TSOL's Youtube Channel, site, and online shop.

25 May 2016

What Good Is a Landline?

This month finds me contemplating getting rid of our landline.  It costs us about $300 a year, with taxes and fees, and seems mainly a vehicle to receive marketing and fundraising calls. Further, for the past year our phone service has been supplied by our cable provider--that is, the landline is more of a "landline."  It won't work when the electricity goes out, which used to be a reason to keep at least one phone plugged into the wall.

When my deaf mother was alive, I couldn't seriously consider getting rid of our landline because the TTY device I used to communicate with her weekly required a landline and I couldn't find an analogous device that would work with a cell phone. I imagine that's because deaf people who use cell phones likely just text each other--the market for those who want to use a cell phone with a TTY must be vanishingly small.

When you Google "should I get rid of my landline?" the chief objections seem related to emergencies.  In our current situation, as I mentioned, we aren't protected from an electrical outage. We have no children, so we don't need to worry about young kids (presumably without their own cellphones) needing to contact someone in a crisis. We generally don't have trouble keeping our phones charged so the "emergency" of running out of battery seems less applicable.  Plus, we have additional devices that can make calls over the Internet (Skype, Facetime) should the phones die. Of course, if the Internet died, we'd be screwed, but that would be true with our current "landline" also.

I didn't see any discussion of my main concern--not wanting to give either of our cell numbers to credit card companies, political and charitable organizations, and so forth.  Also, wanting a number that represents our household as opposed to only my husband or only me.

The answer to that seems to be Google Voice.  So I think this week I am going to take the plunge: get a Google number, let folks know we have a new number, and drop the landline.

(deep breath)

Will update on how it goes.

08 January 2016

Being Your Own IT Department Can Be a Drag

I am the person in our household who understands computer and networking technology best, which seems pretty laughable. It is not that I understand these things well, but that even though my husband is an engineer, he's not that kind of engineer. Also, he doesn't apply himself to understand computers and networking--he doesn't need to. At work he has a real IT department to worry about that stuff and at home he has me.

So when the problems of last week recurred (my docked Windows laptop couldn't get to the Internet through its ethernet connection), it was on me to fix. Victor had already complained that his laptop was unable to get to the Internet via our home wireless network; I discounted his complaints because all my devices managed to access the Internet via wi-fi just fine and he has a cellular connection that he can use when wi-fi is unavailable.

This morning, testing revealed that while my iDevices (including the iMac) connected to the Internet--wired and wi-fi--the Windows laptop couldn't do it, nor could the Roku.  I didn't take the time to check the Apple TV--we use it very little.  But I guess--since it is an iDevice--that the Apple TV would have worked fine. I recall that was true last week.

Many power downs and power ups later, there was still no positive change. Except one: my laptop's wi-fi connection returned!  Mystified by why or how, but even though the connection returned the laptop could not reach the Internet through the network.

Changing Ethernet cords around didn't do any good, either; nor did (for example) connecting the Roku directly to the router instead of to an Ethernet switch. Since the problem came and went, I wondered whether the router, which is a few years old, might be going bad.  So I switched it with the router provided by the cable company.

The substitute router worked seamlessly for the iDevices and didn't make a bit of difference for the other devices. Worse--it broke Sonos.

It is another bad-weather day, and I would have been inclined to think that's what caused the trouble, but Victor was so disdainful of this conjecture when I brought it up a last week that I did some googling on the subject and learned that he is likely correct to be disdainful.

The inconsistency of the problem was particularly aggravating. The Power Over Ethernet adapter in the dining room worked fine (that's where the iMac is connected) while the one in my office (where my laptop was connected) was failing to convey the Internet signal.

Another thing bugged the hell out of me.  When I manually connected to "My Network" it became "My Network 2" after connection. There is no "My Network 2."  This had happened when I tried to troubleshoot Victor's laptop also.

Then I thought about what had changed recently. One thing is that I have been beta testing some software. That didn't seem relevant to network issues. The other thing is that I added a new Apple Airport Express to our network to support AirPlay with Sonos.

And suddenly, I thought, that's it. The Airport Express creates a wireless network; it's creating some kind of interference in the dining room (where it was connected to a Sonos speaker) and the non-iDevices are trying to get Internet from there  instead of the router, as if the Airport Express were a network extender.

This proved to be the case. Once I disconnected and unplugged the Airport Express from the Sonos device and restarted everything, everything functioned properly.

Except Sonos.  To bring back Sonos, I had to revert to the original router. Some day I will devote some time to figuring out why that is.

Another day I will also devote some time to understanding why the Airport Express should have caused a problem when (I am pretty sure) I had turned off its wi-fi broadcasting capability.

But enough hours have been spent on all this today. I would much prefer if I had someone knowledgeable to call on when stuff like this happens.  All this technology is fabulous when it works. When it doesn't it's incredibly disruptive.

I had so many things to do today and now I just want to go lie down.  

07 January 2016

Goodbye, Unlimited Data

When I first got an iPhone, more than five years ago, AT&T was the only cellular provider partnering with Apple, and they offered an unlimited data plan for it. Later, as additional carriers partnered with Apple offering different deals, AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers; however, I was grandfathered in as long as I didn't change plans or carriers. I was pretty proud of having been smart enough to have an unlimited data plan even though the achievement had nothing to do with smarts and everything to do with timing. I stuck with AT&T through multiple iPhone replacements in part to preserve my access to an unlimited data plan.

Recently I AT&T alerted me that the cost of my plan (which had been the same for the entire time I've used an iPhone) is going up. This prompted me to check out other options, and it turns out that AT&T is now offering a 2GB data package that costs substantially less than I now pay for unlimited data.  When I checked, I learned that my average monthly data use is less than 1GB; I approached 2GB in only one billing period in the past year.

When I was new to smart phones, an unlimited data package seemed like a great option because I had no idea how much data I would use and was afraid of being dunned crazy amounts of money for using Google on street corners. Now that I know I rarely exceed 1GB data a month, I don't need to pay more for the "insurance" of unlimited data.

So, goodbye unlimited data!  

04 January 2016

Yet Another Purple Carrot/Meal Kit Delivery Update

We are still pretty big fans of the Purple Carrot though we continue to be troubled by all the packaging materials and the fact that the stuff is being sent to us from halfway across the country. The quality of the recipes is just excellent, and almost every recipe includes a new (to us) ingredient or technique, making our membership feel like a cooking class.

For example, we had not cooked much before with tofu products, and never with seitan, so it's nice to have excellent recipes that highlight really tasty uses for these products. A technique that surprised and then excited us was searing portabella mushrooms in a pan alongside a cut lemon.  The lemon's juice makes its way into the mushrooms without your squeezing it; you end up with a beautiful charred lemon for garnish and a remarkably delicious pan-grilled portabella mushroom.

There has been a lot of variety in the recipes so far, which has makes cooking (and eating) more exciting.  A lot of international influences (from Japan to Morocco to New Orleans) are evident, as is a bias toward seasonal ingredients (such as root vegetables and winter squash in December).  And it is a great convenience that hard-to-find ingredients not stocked at the local grocery store (such as fresh curry leaves) are included in the box.

Still, even with a somewhat relaxed holiday schedule, we fell behind, so I have put the delivery service on hold to give ourselves a chance to catch up. There are two meal kits in the fridge right now, and I have plans to make a meat-based dish (the traditional Eastern European Jewish cassoulet called cholent) tonight since the temperature has dropped so much lately.

Because of our travel schedule, we will probably keep The Purple Carrot suspended till the second part of February, at which point we may finally check out Lighter, A review I found online made it sound somewhat more personalized than Purple Carrot--you can tell them what you already have at home (for example, a can of pinto beans, or ground turmeric) so they don't send you unnecessary stuff.

I had researched other services such as Meez and Blue Apron, but these don't interest me as much, both because the vegan offerings are not as attractive and (at least in Meez' case) they use prepared sauces.  That makes me feel like I'm not doing the cooking. While I understand it's a convenience intended to make my own cooking go quicker, I'd rather take more time and cook it all myself.