Author Archive

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy and have Smiley’s People waiting in the wings.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.

How to make the perfect grilled cheese — without killing yourself

3 March 2012
Categories: Uncategorized

In Episode 45 of the ever-entertaining, always-informative podcast How To Do Everything, guest contributor McKay Marshall gave his technique on “How to make the perfect grilled cheese.”

I found his method to be dangerous and scary. Not saying it’s wrong, but it is for experts only. Grabbing ingredients on the fly, using a pan that’s “as hot as you can get it,” his inversion technique for flipping—these all need someone who knows what he or she is doing and can work at a short-order cook’s pace, not to mention a spatula that is shaped to allow you to invert a pan over it without the risk of burned fingers.

One of the How-To guys (Ian, I think) said this “high-action method” was “making [him] tense.” It did me, too. They likened it to mixing a drink à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. But when you screw that up, you spill booze and break bottles. Screw up Marshall’s grilled cheese method, and you’re throwing around scalding hot oil and melted cheese. Next stop, burn unit.

My method takes only slightly longer, but anyone can do it with very little kitchen expertise. To paraphrase “The Tortoise and the Hare,” low and slow wins this race.

Start with your mise en place—a French chef’s way of saying “get your shit together.” Butter one side of bread, set it butter-side up on your work surface, then butter the next slice and set it on top of the first, buttered sides facing each other. This back-to-back layout keeps you from getting butter on everything, and now you have an open-faced area on which to put your cheese—grated cheese will melt better than slices—and any add-ons. (As an aside, my favorite addition is roasted green chiles from a can.)

Meanwhile, heat up your pan at a setting only one or two notches above simmer at most. I highly recommend a cast-iron pan, which does the best job of grilling and also avoids the health risk of dry-heating a non-stick pan. If you must use a non-stick pan, either put the sandwich into a cold pan, or use Marshall’s butter-in-the-pan-not-on-the-bread method.

When everything’s ready, and the pan is hot but not searing, pick up the entire back-to-back sandwich and place it into the pan as if you’re cutting a deck of cards: take the top slice with its cheese and put it on the bottom, and the bottom slice and put it on top, so your sandwich is now fully assembled as it starts to grill.

Cover the pan very loosely with a lid—enough to trap some heat and speed the cheese-melting, but not enough to trap steam and make the bread soggy. By the time the bread is nicely grilled, which will only take a few minutes, the cheese will have begun to melt—this will allow you to flip the sandwich normally. Grill the second side uncovered. While this is happening, you’ll have time to clean up without risk of overcooking the sandwich.

Ten minutes, start to finish, and with any luck no calls to the fire department.

Bigger is Not Better

10 February 2012
Categories: Music appreciation

WXRT (93.1 FM Chicago) is my favorite radio station. Its morning team in particular, Lin Brehmer and Mary Dixon, are the best in the business: informative, insightful, and erudite, and hilarious without ever resorting to the blaring, obvious comedy of other morning shows. It’s a regular part of my weekday-morning routine—and to be frank I find my day a little off-kilter whenever anyone else stands in for Lin or Mary at the mic.

Every year XRT runs a listener poll, which is a great way for the station both to generate listener involvement and to get feedback on its programming. The results are pretty good: of course “Best Albums” and “Best Songs” are not necessarily the best of all the year’s music—they are the year’s best releases that XRT has been playing. Still, that is to be expected given the responder base—XRT’s regular listeners—so there is nothing inherently wrong with the results in those categories.

I have a major problem, however, with one of the other categories: “Best Concerts.”

The problem is simply one of volume: the bigger the show, the larger the potential number of voters for it, and therefore the more likely it is to make the list—regardless of quality.

Take a look at the 2011 results. I think we can take as a given that people who didn’t see a particular concert are unlikely to vote for it; but that everyone who attended a concert is a potential voter for it. If we assume that each of the top 10 concert events on the list were sold out (a safe bet), we can determine each event’s potential voter base by multiplying the capacity of the venue by the number of shows/nights in the event. When we do this, not one of the events listed has a vote potential of less than about 4,000. (Well, okay, the smallest is 3,880—the capacity of the Chicago Theatre.) The average vote potential for those ten events is over 60,000.

Multiple shows, such as Wilco’s 5-night, venue-hopping “residency,” are lumped in together as a single event, regardless of whether a voter meant the incredible first-night show with Mavis Staples at the Civic Opera House, or the intimate final-night appearance at Lincoln Hall. This is about the only way smaller venues will appear on the list. (Last year, Buddy Guy’s 16-night residency at his own Legends took 3rd place: a very small venue—550 capacity—but a lot of shows.) Meanwhile Lollapalooza has placed in the top 5 every year (except 2009, when it took 9th) since it arrived in Chicago in 2005; regardless of how terrific the Coldplay or My Morning Jacket or Foo Fighters sets might have been, Lolla’s 3rd-place finish this year was surely not harmed by having a vote potential of more than a quarter million.

“I put on shows at the Saturn so that the kids can see the stage, afford the tickets, and hear the music. So screw stadiums.” — the immortal Max Wolfe, in Get Crazy

In an interview celebrating Lin Brehmer’s twenty years with XRT (as an aside, congratulations to my “best friend in the whole world”), he stated that among his favorite places to see live music are: Metro, Park West, Old Town School, SPACE, Lincoln Hall, Schubas. As he so concisely and forthrightly put it, “Small is usually best.”

And yet, because of the vote potential of the bigger shows, not one show that played at any of those venues made the “Best Concerts” list—even though four out of Brehmer’s six made XRT’s list of “Best Venues.” That’s because these smaller venues lack vote potential. The most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show in the history of the universe, appearing for one night at, say, Metro has at most a vote potential of 1,100—and the other venues Brehmer mentioned are smaller still. There is simply no way for that to compete against any show, good or mediocre, at Soldier Field (65,000), or Wrigley Field (42,000), or Alpine Valley (37,000).

I think XRT should weight its “Best Concerts” results based on vote potential. That, or make it clear to its listeners: these might have been the biggest shows of the year, but they weren’t necessarily the best.

Given that my proposal could undermine Lollapalooza’s dominance of the list, and XRT is a major promoter of both the main event and many of its affiliated “secret” after-hours shows, I have no expectation that XRT will do anything other than utterly ignore this argument. 

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “little friend”

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Like many Star Wars fans, when I first saw Episode I – The Phantom Menace, I hated it. For all the usual reasons, of course. But there was one plot point that bugged the hell out of me, made me feel like the newer films were horribly anachronistic and non-canon with respect to the original trilogy. In Episode I, Obi-Wan Kenobi meets up with Artoo Detoo. Later, particularly in Episodes II and III, they go into battle together.

I was appalled. “If they have such a long history together,” I asked no one in particular, “why the heck doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize Artoo when the droid arrives on Tatooine in Episode IV?”

Turns out I was wrong about this. The simple answer: he does.

Imagine it from Obi-Wan’s perspective. He’s been in exile on Tatooine for years, hiding from the Empire and keeping watch over young Skywalker, acting as Luke’s mostly unseen guardian and protector. Some day, he hopes, the Rebel Alliance will gain enough strength for the remaining Jedi to resurface, join the fight and, with any luck, defeat the Empire. Until that time, he’s going to lay low.

Then one day, he hears a ruckus: a landspeeder roaring through the Jundland Wastes, and Tusken Raiders coming after it to attack the driver and loot the speeder. Obi-Wan might already be on his toes, if he spotted the unlikely sight of a space battle just beyond Tatooine’s atmosphere a day or two before. He arrives on the scene to find his unwitting protégé—and his longtime comrade, companion, and fellow Hero of the Clone Wars, Artoo Detoo.

What’s Obi-Wan to do? Right away he knows the cat’s out of the bag, but he doesn’t yet know just how far out it is. He doesn’t know if Luke knows anything more than Uncle Owen’s lies, and he certainly doesn’t know (though probably suspects) why Artoo is there.

So he plays it cool.

He keeps a straight face, feigning zero recognition of the droid. When he hears Luke say his real name—Obi-Wan, not Ben—he’s a little shocked, and resigns himself to telling Luke that he’s Obi-Wan… and soon Obi-Wan is giving Luke his father’s old light saber, cluing him in on the existence of the Force, and admitting to having fought in the Clone Wars. He takes it as a given that Luke will accompany him to Alderaan. The cat is well and truly out of the bag.

Even his denial of Artoo is not, in itself, a lie. Obi-Wan speaks quite truthfully when he states, “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid.” As far as I can tell from extensive online biographies, Obi-Wan Kenobi never did own a droid—and he definitely never owned Artoo Detoo. (I’d also like to think that Obi-Wan considers droid “ownership” to be slavery, and owning a droid to be antithetical to both his nature and theirs.)

So yes, I believe that Obi-Wan recognizes Artoo instantly, and it’s only the fact that we don’t understand what Artoo is saying that this is not revealed in the scene. Of course, it’s not that I’m saying the scene was written that way at the time, because it probably was not, but the way Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan with such inscrutable mannerisms definitely could be interpreted as such.

Now, had Artoo managed to reach Obi-Wan’s home without Luke catching up to him, the reception might have been different:

Obi-Wan: (Opens the door, looks only slightly surprised, as if he’d been expecting this) Hello there, my little friend. It’s been a long time. Come in, come in! What brings you to this quiet corner of the galaxy?
R2-D2: (Beeps once or twice, then rolls Leia’s distress message)
Obi-Wan: (Frowns) Looks like we’re headed to Alderaan.

(Some time later…)
Luke arrives at Obi-Wan’s home, finds the door locked and no one home.
Luke: Well, we might as well go to Anchorhead and get your memory wiped.
C-3PO: Oh, very good, sir.


Get to know the real Artoo Detoo

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Years ago, I came to realize that the real hero of Star Wars is not the guy everyone assumes it is, Luke Skywalker—rather, it’s that plucky little astromech droid, Artoo Detoo. I had some fun writing a revisionist narrative of A New Hope based on that assumption, and have to say that I’m a little surprised never to have seen anyone else come to this realization, even though it’s obvious when you really think about it. Among the hints:

  • Artoo Detoo—and his comic-relief sidekick, See Threepio, because every good action hero needs a comic-relief sidekick—appears in all six Star Wars films.
  • Only the principal bad guy, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, can claim the same. (Obi-Wan Kenobi is a ghost in Episodes V and VI, so I don’t think that counts.)
  • In A New Hope, the droid duo are the very first main characters to appear and to speak. That’s a standard trope of the Saturday-afternoon popcorn serials to which Star Wars is an homage: establish your hero right off the bat, so everyone knows who to root for.

I made some statements in that narrative that might seem a bit far-fetched, and not based in the “reality” of what’s on-screen. In particular: Artoo Detoo is the Death Star Destroyer. However, I can prove it.

1. The plans provided by Leia to Artoo are the Death Star’s original design specs.

When the Corellian transport Tantive IV is attacked and captured by Vader’s Star Destroyer in the opening scene, the Death Star is not yet 100% operational. It is, shall we say, still on its shakedown cruise. The Empire’s still peeling off the shrink-wrap in many parts of the battle station.

We know this because after Leia’s capture, General Tagge mentions that the Death Star is not yet fully operational, and Grand Moff Tarkin refers to its use against Alderaan as “a ceremony that will make this battle station operational.” It had to have taken some time for the Rebel spies to acquire the plans and provide them to Leia. Therefore, they must be plans from earlier in the construction project—most likely the original design specs, or some portion of them.

2. Artoo steals a complete set of as-built specs while aboard the Death Star.

When they arrive aboard the Death Star, the first thing Artoo does is plug into the main computer. Why? He doesn’t need to find a way to the tractor beam controls so they can get away; presumably he already has this information in the stolen plans. (And no, he doesn’t need a monitor to display the route to Kenobi—he has a freakin’ holographic projector in his dome!)

Artoo patches in because he’s an experienced soldier in enemy territory who wants to maximize his battlefield situational awareness. He immediately starts downloading all the data he can grab, including (but not limited to) construction details, disposition of troops, and the current alert status. How do we know? For this reason: he finds Leia. When last he saw Leia, she was about to be captured by a Star Destroyer near Tatooine, in an entirely different star system light-years away from a Death Star near the remains of Alderaan. Artoo has no reason to think she’d be alive, much less anywhere nearby, and thus has no reason to look for her. Yet he finds her, because a prisoner manifest happens to be among the reams of data he’s absorbing throughout their sojourn aboard the battle station.

3. Without those as-built specs, the Rebels would have had no plan of attack.

It’s highly unlikely that the Death Star’s intended design included a two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port, unshielded against projectile weapons, leading directly to the main reactor. That would be an insane Achilles’ heel.

I believe the original plans as stolen by the Rebel spies would have shown some kind of particle shielding or other defense system—heck, even a simple steel grate—covering that exhaust port. Without the as-built specs, marking that particular piece of the project as still on the “punch list,” the Rebels would have thought the Death Star utterly impregnable. (Which it would have been, had it not been rushed into operational status.)

4. Artoo not only devised the plan of attack, he programmed the photon torpedoes to hit the target.

When Artoo and company arrive on Yavin 4, technicians download his massive data trove—and in just a few hours they have their plan of attack ready for dissemination to the flight crews. How did they come up with a solution so quickly? Because Artoo is not some passive hard-drive—he’s a veteran astromech droid. He had several more hours to peruse the specs (and days longer to view the original plans), analysis time that would have allowed him to find a solution on his own.

Moreover, during the attack, if hitting the exhaust port were really as easy as “bullseye[ing] womp rats in my T-16 back home,” why do several shots using the Rebel Alliance’s best targeting computers go astray, just impacting on the surface? And yet a kid with exactly zero time in the cockpit of an Incom T-65 X-wing Starfighter, with his targeting computer disabled, is able to pull the trigger at random, and “blow this thing and go home.”

Why? Because Artoo, unlike every pilot—and every other astromech droid—on the mission, has a complete understanding of the target. He knows the exhaust port’s exact location, appearance, and surroundings. He alone can direct those photon torpedoes to hit it accurately. Fortunately he’s able to do so before Luke’s novice combat-piloting skills put his dome in a TIE fighter’s crosshairs. (An idle thought: perhaps Vader, who shoots Artoo, recognizes him and is aiming for him; maybe Artoo—and not Luke—is the object of Vader’s comment, “The Force is strong with this one.”)

Meanwhile, I suspect that turning his targeting computer off is the one smart thing Luke does, as it prevents the computer from overriding Artoo’s re-programming. But that’s really a wild surmise.

At any rate, now that I’ve further defended the statement that Artoo Detoo is the real hero of Star Wars, I have another revelation about that plucky little droid.

Artoo Detoo is a sarcastic, potty-mouthed wiseacre.

By the time we meet him in ANH he’s been through decades of wars and adventures: seriously kicking ass, seldom taking names, and getting little-to-no credit for his actions. Artoo is getting pretty tired of this shit—if he were capable of anger he’d be called irascible. Plus he’s never had a memory wipe; according to one online source, “Industrial Automation spent a great deal of time in the design of the R2-series astromech droid’s personality matrix. The droid was obliging, quick witted, and sincere. If the droid was not subjected to periodic memory wipes, it could develop a headstrong, self-reliant disposition.”*

Consider this: only Threepio understands everything Artoo says, and being a protocol droid he’s unlikely to repeat anything impolite or impolitic. But I believe that pretty much any time Artoo speaks, with the exception of imparting direct, factual information, he’s emitting scathing one-liners and cheerfully ripping everyone around him a new one. He’s not being a jerk, and he has no ego to be egotistical about it; he’s actually very charismatic and chipper—surprisingly so considering the rough treatment he’s received throughout his service. Besides, he has a diehard steadfastness and loyalty toward humans, even though they rarely hold up their end of the symbiotic relationship between humans and droids.

The empirical fact is that no one—heck, no one army—has done as much to save the Galaxy from the Empire as Artoo Detoo has. He’s earned himself a little snarkiness.

For illustration, here are a few excerpts, with my impressions of possible subtitles in the place of Artoo’s bleeps, bloops, and whistles.

Opening scene

C-3PO: Did you hear that?
R2-D2: [Of course I fucking heard that. I’m not deaf, you know.]
C-3PO: They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.
R2-D2: [This is war, same as it ever was. Get your bipedal ass moving. And ditch your shitbox silver twin.]

C-3PO: We’re doomed.
R2-D2: [How very helpful, Glass-half-full.]
C-3PO: There’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
R2-D2: [Princess schmincess, as long as she bothers to hand off the secret plans first. Where the fuck is that girl?]

Later, on Tatooine

C-3PO: Just you reconsider playing that message for him!
R2-D2: (In a disingenuous tone, feigning hopefulness) [Why? Doesn’t the idiot farm boy like me?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t think he likes you at all.
R2-D2: (Still disingenuously, with added sarcasm) [Et tu, Threepio?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t like you either.
R2-D2: (A descending whistle of pure, distilled sarcasm) [Nuts.]

In Obi-Wan’s home

Obi-Wan: Which reminds me… I have something here for you.
R2-D2: [Hello? Droid with Death Star plans here!]
Obi-Wan: Your father wanted you to have it, when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade like your father did.

Luke: What is it?
Obi-Wan: Your father’s light saber.
R2-D2: [Better stand back, old man, before that imbecile waves that thing through your head.]

Obi-Wan: Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
Luke: The Force?
Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
R2-D2: [Hey Kenobi, if you’re done bullshitting that kid about who his father really is, maybe you’d like to take a look at the message I’m carrying before a bunch of goddamn stormtroopers show up.]
Obi-Wan: (Pretending not to understand Artoo) Now, let’s see what you are, my little friend…
R2-D2: [’Bout time.]
Obi-Wan:  …and where you come from.

Aboard the Death Star

C-3PO: I would much rather have gone with Master Luke than stay here with you. I don’t know what all this trouble is about, but I’m sure it must be your fault.
R2D2: [Oh, for fuck’s sake! Did you take another memory wipe?]
C-3PO: You watch your language!

C-3PO is tangled up in wires after a run-in with TIE fighters

C-3PO: Help! I think I’m melting! This is all your fault!
R2-D2: “(Makes a series of beeps that sound like chuckling)” [IMDb]

The examples go on and on, and as much as this started out as kind of a joke, there’s an element of truth to it. There are hints throughout the films that Artoo is not just making random chirrups of sweetness and light, such as when he calls Threepio a “mindless philosopher.”

Just imagine the rant Artoo voices when Luke, after confidently stating he’d like to pilot the X-wing for a while, crashes it into a swamp on Dagobah. “Nice landing, hot shot,” would be the mildest part of it.