SXSW Chronicles: Big Ass Spider!

Out of Order didn’t want to take this one off my hands. Here you are, Internet!

It will help you imagine the rest of the movie if I tell you that those helicopters have no missiles and just hover there until the spider crushes them.


 “It’s a B movie,” they said. “Don’t expect too much,” they said. “Have a few drinks first,” they said.

 I tried to listen, except for the part about the drinks, but the trouble with Big Ass Spider! wasn’t expecting too much, but expecting anything at all, save the monster promised in the title.

There is a spider. It is big ass, big-ass, bigass, however you spell it.

There are also some human characters, two of whom are funny. One of those never appears after the first scene, which is clever and promising and in no way representative of the rest of the film. Instead, we get a stock parade of gruff general, pretty no-nonsense girl soldier, non-soldier girls with large breasts running away from things, grunts being sent into futile combat against an unkillable opponent, and a Hispanic janitor who is Hispanic.

I’d like to comment briefly on the grunts. Even in a horror comedy, it feels a little insulting to tell us that the Army’s main strategy in dealing with an eight-legged monster with tank-like armor is to throw out foot soldiers without a single rocket launcher between them. Director Mike Mendez’s attempt to inject some military pathos into the script later on falls even flatter than it should have following the abject and inexplicable massacre of so many helpless men. Soldiers are massacred all the time on film, of course, but even Transformers at least takes them seriously.

Anyway, sorry for the interlude, but it’s the only non-surface thing I could think to say about the flim. Props to Mike Mendez for making his vision reality without much of a budget, but writing a good screenplay costs exactly as much as writing a bad screenplay, and he took the low road. There are no surprises, precious few laugh lines, and no real logic in any aspect of the growing-spider situation (compared to Cloverfield or Aliens or even most bad modern monster movies). The spider looks okay, but is more in-your-face powerful than frightening after it molts into its first big-ass form. (There are many different forms, and we hear about them in absurd detail.)

Some say there’s an audience for any movie. I honestly do not think anyone reading this review would enjoy Big Ass Spider! Please do something else with your time.

SXSW Chronicles: Moon Hooch

Though I went as a music journalist, at the tender age of 19, I had no hope of entering most of the clubs of Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Acts I would not see over the course of the festival include: Paul Oakenfold, the Crystal Method, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Autre Ne Veut, Deadmau5, and (this one broke my heart) Snoop Lion.

But that’s alright. Instead, I saw these guys:

I’d been taking 30-second videos of street performers up to this point, but found myself rooted in place, unable to move save to capture the reactions of various dancers. I’m far from a skilled videographer, but I think the crowd’s joy comes through. Austin’s reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World aside, most of the buskers I saw were competent instrumentalists, but without much flair for showmanship or a catchy repertoire (though there were other notable exceptions). Who’d have thought two saxophones and a drummer were the magic recipe for success?

Once the band finished their set, I turned to leave. I dropped my pen, however (I’d been taking notes), and when I rose from picking it up, I saw that some new musicians had entered the scene.

I don’t know what those white tubes are called, but these guys were clearly veterans. (I saw them playing on the streets, often with other musicians, three of the next four nights.) You might not be able to tell from the video, but that drummer is grinning ear-to-ear behind his hair. How often does one get the chance to improvise a jam with two skilled strangers who play the same instruments as your friends, when your friends are both saxophonists? I wish my audio had been better: you could feel the brass in your bones if you stood close enough, and the rhythm was even catchier in person.

Once the jam ended, the young drummer stood to shake hands with the veterans, and his bandmates joined him. I stuck around to watch the conversation. Couldn’t make out what was being said, and eventually left. Then, heard a riff from behind me. The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. It stopped. Then, another riff, this one perhaps even more familiar to my generation. I turned around and began recording.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure, “Thrift Shop”, as covered by four saxophones and one drum set.

I approached the drummer after the set to thank him for what was, after all’s said and done, one of the five best concerts I saw in my time at one of the world’s largest music festivals. He told me that his name was James Muschler, and that the band’s name was Moon Hooch. They met at the New School, a college in Manhattan, where James picked up a BA in jazz performance before bandmates Mike Wilbur and “Wenzl” McGowen left school with him to play full-time (Mike and Wenzl also graduated, though I’m not sure if they were performance majors). Though they started out as buskers in subway stations, they were discovered by solo artist Mike Doughty and found themselves “playing above ground” and even opening for bands like Lotus and They Might Be Giants.

Wait, They Might Be Giants? Then what are you doing out here?

James ignores the question’s rudeness and gives me a straight answer, plus a big winning smile: “We started out on the streets. And now we’re bringing our music back to the streets.” Handshakes all around.

In short: These guys are wonderful. I just bought their album on Bandcamp. If you like funky dance music with a good story behind it, you’d be well-advised to do the same.

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

A review written for Light and Truth, the magazine of Yale’s Conservative Party. It appeared on campus, but only on paper.

My heart goes out to Andrew Delbanco.

In the course of writing College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, he encountered the same paradox I will if I try to apply my time at Yale to any debate on the state of higher education.

Along with my friends at Columbia, Middlebury, and the University of Chicago, I enjoy the public ideal of “college life”: Frisbees, ping-pong and five-person seminars.

Statistically, though, my friends and I are very unusual. Private, four-year colleges (most of which you’ve never heard of) enroll about 20% of America’s post-secondary students. Two hundred and fifty thousand people take classes at the University of Phoenix—more than twice the undergrad population of the Ivy League and U.S. News’ top 20 liberal arts colleges combined.

But this book wasn’t written by Mark DeFusco, former director of the University of Phoenix. In fact, he is  quoted only once, asserting that most students attend college mostly for financial reasons. Delbanco, a Harvard graduate and 27-year veteran professor at Columbia, calls Defusco’s (probably true) statement “a surrender of America’s democratic promise.”

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Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.

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Winter Break Books: Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The book: Princeton professor Appiah mounts a defense of the titular “experiments”. Those who claim that other disciplines and ordinary people play no part in determining what is moral are wrong; simplistic moral theories are almost always wrong; we can improve our lives in an ethical way by working with what we know about ourselves as animals and as thinking beings. Appiah joins forces with a variety of cognitive scientists (for lack of a better term) to argue for altering the environments which inspire our moral instincts, rather than attempting to reverse those instincts we find unseemly.

The good: For a psychology nerd, this book is satisfying proof that social science has recognized utility even in the clouds of moral philosophy. Lots of great experiments and fun hypothetical situations, including a few tweaks to the Trolley Problem I hadn’t encountered before. Literary allusions throughout make for a more flavorful meal. The last chapter is a great summary of a lot of different big, important problems in modern ethical theory and provides a springboard for thoughtful scribbling (if you like to take notes with your books). The footnotes are the best part, in a good way; Experiments in Ethics could serve as the gateway to a philosophy major in all but name (and diploma).

The bad: The author was invited to deliver the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr. This book makes sense if you think of it as a collection of lectures, but reading rather than hearing it feels disjointed; Appiah leaps from point to point and rarely offers a definitive argument of his own (his work seems to have been done for him by Aristotle and a host of other long-dead luminaries). The book’s length, at barely 200 pages, prevents the author from entertaining many objections or backing up certain of his points, especially with regards to what stops a happy life from being “good”. A few of the interdisciplinary anecdotes seem to have been inserted mainly because Appiah loves them, rather than for their application to his arguments, which would have been less of a problem had the book been longer.

The verdict: Read it if you have some grounding in philosophy (an undergraduate or high-school introductory class would be fine) and don’t mind skipping ahead a page if Appiah starts to confuse you. Eventually, you’ll latch onto something interesting and memorable. Very much a book to take notes on.

The best things I learned: People tend to be nicer in quiet than in loud rooms. Lydia Davis writes killer short stories. Children and the Amish will accept that breaking certain rules (chewing gum, working on the Sabbath) is fine if an authority doesn’t regulate them, but insist that hitting would be wrong even if teachers/God permitted hitting. Philosophers tend to take sides on moral dilemmas in the same proportions as regular people, for basically the same reasons; in other words, our moral intuitions are very powerful, though they are not always right. Happy people are more likely than unhappy people to push a fat man off a footbridge if his body will stop a train from killing five hikers.


Note: Like many books of philosophy, Experiments in Ethics has a fine collection of Amazon reviews that delve deeper into the arguments than I can without boring some readers. I recommend checking them out if you are so inclined.

Queer Eye for the Ivy Guy: Stover at Yale

I got a copy of Owen Johnson’s classic novel Stover at Yale for Christmas. The university was different in 1901 (for one thing, the football team relied more on their rushing game), but some things were pretty much the same.


A sophomore teaches the freshman protagonist a lesson:

“No fooling around women; that isn’t done here — that will queer you absolutely.”


The protagonist is invited to a courtship dinner:

“Confound Bob Story! Why the deuce did he get me into this? I loathe females.”


The protagonist, now a junior, meets an adoring freshman in his entryway:

“Why do you wear pink pajamas?”

The little freshman, face-to-face with his first great emotion, blurted out: “Don’t you like them, sir?”

“Keep them on,” said Stover.


Later, the adoring freshman (Wookey) gets life advice from Stover and another drunken junior. At the end of the night:

“The two took solemn hold of each other’s hands and rolled over on the cushions. Wookey, in the pink pajamas, covered them with a rug, and stole out, like a thief, carrying away a secret.”


Junior Stover chooses senior roommates:

“The four of us are all different enough to make just the combination we need. I’m tired of bunking alone. I want to rub up against someone else.”


1 in 4, maybe more, since 1901.

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The Floodgates Open: Out of Order Edition

My work thus far for Out of Order, the hip magazine for college students and twentysomethings founded by Yale’s own Dorian Grinspan (but featuring the work of writers from all over the place).

Robert Adams: The Place We Live

My review of a show featuring photographer Robert Adams at the Yale University Art Gallery (now closed, but appearing in many other cities for the next year or so).

“Adams shoots stunning landscapes, often with miles of visibility, but despite the title of the exhibition, you don’t feel as if you could live there. His houses are mostly abstractions, claustrophobic, while his forests are dense and wild or slashed apart and scattered over barren mountainsides. In one of the many segments of the exhibition, “Summer Nights,” he closes in on suburban life, capturing happy parents and children, as well as cars and stores that provide a sense of plenty rather than imposing themselves on the landscape. But even Adams’ vision of the standard American Dream can feel disconcerting. A tilt-o-whirl spins without a rider in sight, looking very alone in the wide, gray night; tree shadows envelop a house and block out the windows; another home is shot in a cloud of what could be fog or smog. ‘We call that one ‘Murder House’,’ Chuang notes.”

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

“Strange to say, I liked this verbal movie most when Chbosky’s voice is stilled. There are a few marvelous depictions of Charlie on drugs, embracing a soft and wobbly world, and when tragedy sharpens his perspective, scowls and bruises speak louder than words. When Charlie falls in love, cinematography and Emma Watson’s eyes do more work than any voiceover possibly could. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie leaves too much unsaid—which seems to be the fault of the source material.”

Review: Calvin Harris, 18 Months

“Harris has a signature sound when you hear his work plastered together.Trouble is, that sound is nothing to write home about—and the further you get from the dance floor, the more certain aspects of his method confound you. Listening to 18 Months alongside his first two albums, I Created Disco (2007) and Ready For the Weekend (2012), you might think they’re in reverse chronological order. His present melodies call to mind Philip Glass getting drunk and discovering Ableton Live, banging out repetitive chord structures while forgetting to add new ideas after the first minute.”

Spin NYC: A Visit to Another World

I lounge awhile in the Big Apple’s fanciest ping-pong club.

“I can’t compete with the stars of my college basement, but my slice is on today, giving me an edge over my girlfriend, who sends balls sailing in every direction. At first, we give in to the urge to run for them, but soon it becomes clear that our bucket will never empty. An employee wanders the floor, using an ingenious basket-on-a-stick device to grab what rolls away, dumping his collection into customers’ buckets from time to time (even in the mid-afternoon, there are a few other players; mostly tourists, I’d guess). I ask Gordon whether anyone’s ever slipped. ‘Not in three years. The balls crush under the pressure before you lose your balance.'”

The Floodgates Open: Globalist Edition

My work, so far, for the Yale Globalist, in reverse chronological order.

Includes Iceland, the European Union, and diseased honeybees, in rising order of fragility. Those last two might be tied, actually.

Unity vs. Ennui: The Life and Times of a Eurocrat

“In the most interesting line of his presentation, Steimer let out some of his inevitable frustration, in this case with the majority of the French populace that fears losing national sovereignty if France integrates further into the EU. ‘Where is French sovereignty in the face of financial markets? Where is French sovereignty when we try to negotiate with China?'”

Review: Tokyo Story

“Tokyo Story does not have a happy ending, but that’s less because there isn’t happiness than because there isn’t an ending.”

Silent Swarm

“Six years ago, the bees stopped waking up.”

Hard To Swallow: Child Obesity and Parental Rights in the United Kingdom

“It’s a libertarian’s nightmare: government-appointed social workers forcing your family into public housing, making your children exercise, even standing in your new kitchen as you prepare food. And if your children fail to slim down, you lose them.”

No Future? Fantastic!

“In a social-science coup de grâce, Keith Chen announced to the audience that next-door neighbors who speak different languages, and whose demographics and family lives are otherwise near-identical, have wildly differing savings and obesity rates—again, predicted by the tenses permitted in their native tongue.”

Who Else Were You Going to Vote For?

“On May 29, 2010, the voters of Reykjavík, Iceland rejected politics as usual, dumping the Independent and Social Democratic parties in favor of a new candidate’s covenant: increased transparency, family values, free towels in public pools, and a new polar bear for the Reykjavík Zoo.”

Europe Is Toast: Yale Debt Panel Finds Few Solutions

“Though Carmen Reinhart, Ernesto Zedillo, Stephen Roach and Benn Steil all approached the European Union’s debt crisis and the latest Greek tragedy from different angles, they agreed on one thing: it’s a depressing time to be an international finance expert.”

The Floodgates Open: Yale Herald Edition

My collected work for the Yale Herald up to this point, in reverse chronological order, including the cover story “Always Outnumbered, Never Outplayed”.

In this collection, I cover grade inflation, sports recruiting, poker with post-docs, Bjork, online journalism (meta!), Yale president Richard Levin, and other assorted subjects. Keep an eye out for my terrible prediction regarding the course of my school’s 2012 football season.

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