Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Movie: The Atomic Cafe

Though I had heard about The Atomic Cafe for years, I didn't see it until recently. And it's great. The film is a documentary that exclusively uses old film clips to tell the story of the first few decades of the Cold War. That means that initially, the film feels like an old movie.

As it progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers have juxtaposed the film clips in such a way as to bring out a darkly humorous critique of the Cold War. It's funny and alarming, all at once. (It also makes me sad that I'll probably never teach a course on film juxtaposition, as this film would be perfect for such a class.) Ultimately, The Atomic Cafe, which was made in 1982, is a little bit like a documentary version of Dr. Strangelove. It's entertaining, informative, and well worth a watch.

As an added bonus, you can actually watch the entire movie online, here.

Or, just check out this clip:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 1: Rejection

It looks like I won't be doing a PhD, at least in the immediate future. I was going to write a single post explaining why and what I thought, but it got very, very long. So, I've decided to break it up into parts. Also, I'd be lying if I didn't say that doing a multipart series on my blog wasn't at least partially inspired by a friend's fantastic discussion of his beard-related problems at BYU, which you can read here.

After finishing a master's degree at BYU last year, I decided to apply to grad school to do a PhD. There's not many careers that require—or even value—an MA in English, so teaching at a university seemed like a good thing to shoot for. 

So, all through fall of 2009, my primary "occupation" was applying to PhD graduate programs (I did other things, but saw them as secondary). Though I initially planned to apply to around 15, I only ended up submitting applications to 9. Six were in film, and three in English. They were:

University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

University of Pennsylvania
University of Washington.

I chose these schools based on simple criteria: 1) Programs that appealed to me based on their focus/faculty specialties, 2) Programs with enough prestige to get a good job after finishing, with at least a remote possibility of it turning into a really good job down the road, 3) Location, 4) Other assorted factors. 

It's also worth mentioning that though my current degrees are already in English, I almost didn't even apply to any English programs. I have a lot more work experience in film, am more interested in it as an art form, and liked the film programs more. In the end, however, I decided that I'd love to live in Washington state (hence that school), UPenn has great placement and is an Ivy League (and I had a good contact there), and I also had a good contact at Northwestern.

I also think I had a pretty strong application. I had a number of conference presentations, a good writing sample (according to some professors), a published film review in a scholarly journal (and a number of non-scholarly publications with varying pertinence to the field), strong letter's of recommendation (also according to the people who wrote them), etc. Overall, my letter recommenders told me that I was a strong candidate. 

Nevertheless, I have been rejected by all but the University of Michigan, and I don't have high hopes for that school. I have no idea why I've been rejected, but the most basic reason is that the schools I applied for received more suitable applications. I also didn't apply very broadly (as I was advised to do by many people). Three schools in English and six in film hardly ensures entrance into either field. Plus, I mostly only applied to top tier programs (Washington and Michigan aren't necessarily the very top in those respective fields, but they're still very good). 

Because I'm not dying to undergo the financial, emotional, and psychological bludgeoning that the PhD application/rejection process entails, my many years of school are likely at an end. The application for each school cost between $60 and $90. Plus, I retook the GRE (big mistake, btw), which cost over $100, and I had to pay $20 to have my scores sent to more than few schools. There were also a bunch of other expenses along the way which made the application process very expensive. 

More importantly, no matter how nice the rejection letters are, they might as well be a blank piece of paper with the words "you're worthless" scribbled on them. (Or better yet, they could be one of those audio cards that I think are made by Hallmark and play a song when you open them. Except in this case, they could just scream obscenities and insults and leave you to figure out the rest.) Though I don't actually believe I'm worthless, I had no idea how difficult it would be to receive 8 (soon to be 9) consecutive rejection letters. Seriously, it takes a toll.  

Of course, there is still the possibility that I'll get accepted into Michigan. It's slim, I think, but it exists. However, at this point, I may not accept an offer to go to Michigan, as I'm increasingly content with the way things are turning out. Since I've been out of school I've cultivated some new career possibilities, and my qualms with academia are stronger than ever. So stay tuned for the next installment of this series to find out why getting rejected might actually be a really good thing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

European Itinerary

So Laura and I finally sat down and hammered out a schedule of where we're going to be, and when, during the European leg of our trip. Here's what we have so far:

June 29-July 1 (2 nights, 3-ish days): London
July 1-July 2 (at night): cross the English Channel on a boat
July 2 or 3: Amsterdam (for most of a day) en route to Berlin
July 3-5 (2 nights, 3 days) : Berlin
July 5-6 (at night): train from Berlin to Prague
July 6-8 (3-ish nights): Prague
July 9: Vienna, en rout to Franfurt and/or Munich
July 11: arrive in Bacharach (Germany/Rhine River region)
July 12 or 13: leave Germany
July 13-17 (4 nights, 5-ish days): Paris
July 18: French country side
July 20: Chamonix (French Alps), en route to Aosta, Italy
July 21-23/24 (3 nights, 4-ish days): Venice and Venetian countryside (Padua, Ravenna, etc.)
July 24-27 (3 nights, 4ish days): Florence
July 27-28: Cinque Terre
July 29-Aug 4 (6-ish days): Rome
Aug 4: Salt Lake City

A few things about this schedule. First, it's just tentative. We've already booked our hotel in London, but other than that we haven't paid for anything but our plane tickets. In the big cities we'll probably book in advance, but we also want to keep things as flexible as possible. If we like Berlin, for example, we'll try to stay longer and cut something else short.

We've also decided to do some of Europe's "hits." Though Paris, Rome, Venice, etc. might be pretty typical tourist spots, we've never been to them and felt like our first trip to the continent (or at least, my first trip) should hit the major sites.

On a similar note, we've realized that even a month isn't enough time to visit even close to all the places we want to go. I'll mention what went on the chopping block my next post, but the biggest lesson I've learned from this lesson is something I saw in a Rick Steves' video: assume you'll come back. If anything, planning this trip have given me a greater desire to return on future trips.

Also, we are getting the
Eurail pass. More about this later, but for now suffice it to say that we tried to hit cities that are all close together. Our trip, if plotted on a map, zigzags across the continent in such a way that we'll rarely spend more than a few hours traveling. It means we'll be able to hit more cities than we could by using budget airlines (and we'll have less stress).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Movie: In America

Usually, when I hear a movie described as being "uplifting" or even "family oriented," I know that it's terrible. However, strangely, those are probably among the best words that I can think of to describe the utterly stunning In America.

The movie tells the story of a family of recent Irish immigrants (two parents and two young daughters). They've just moved to New York and are trying to make it. They live in a hot, dirty apartment, and the father of the family wants to become an actor. The movie basically follows them as they try to get enough money to survive, and deal with a recent tragedy. It's told from the perspective of the oldest daughter.

The movie is set in contemporary society (as opposed to a lot of immigrant movies that are set in the early 20th century). It is also "heart-warming" without being sickeningly sentimental. It's basically a straight-faced telling of an immigrant experience. It's not gratuitious or bleak (or trying to hard to be hip), but also doesn't gloss over the difficulty that immigrants have. So if you're looking for a movie that's both uplifting and intellectually stimulating (which is a rare thing indeed), check out In America.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Neon Trees

Have you ever wished you could go back in time and meet a famous person before he or she got famous? As a music lover, I know I have. Wouldn't that be cool, I've thought, to see The Beatles in a little club in Hamburg? Or Radiohead when they were still high school students in Oxford, England?

Well right now Provo, Utah has a band that is on the cusp of stardom. That band is Neon Trees. They've been wowing local audiences for years now, but this week they released their debut record "Habit," on Mercury Records. That means that their record is available everywhere. You can find it in Target, Best Buy, and pretty much anywhere across the country. It's also on iTunes and is one of the week's top downloads. In fact, the album's single is a free download on iTunes. Just go and click on it and you'll have it. (Though I'd recommend getting the whole album, because it's fantastic.) 

And just to reiterate, this is a Provo, Utah, band. Though they don't have any pending shows in Provo (having just played one last weekend), you can still follow them from their early days. If they blow up and become huge, you'll have been there (mostly) from the start.

However, this isn't just about bragging rights. It's also about listening to some really great music. Though I'd argue that Neon Trees is best enjoyed live, their album is very cool. To go back to The Beatles analogy, if you had seen them in their early days you'd have something to talk about, but you'd also probably have had a unique musical experience that would have been pleasurable in it's own right.

Of course, Neon Trees will certainly not become as famous or influential as The Beatles, or even Radiohead. No band really can at this point, and many bands that make it as far as the Neon Trees have don't ever fully realize their potential. However, if ever there was band that seemed destined for success, Neon Trees are it. They've been getting loads of positive press, and this week are playing at the South By Southwest Festival, in Texas. They'll also be appearing soon on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and later this year on tour with 30 Seconds to Mars

If it wasn't clear by now, I'm pretty biased in favor of the band, but that's largely because I've had a series of positive experiences with them. I've written about them for Rhombus, and the Daily Heraldtwice. So go check them out and be one of the first people to listen to an awesome band.

All of these picture were taken by Laura, at the band's Velour show on March 12.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Movie: The Day of the Jackel

This week's movie recommendation is Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal, from 1973. It's about a mysterious (possibly British) assassin, who is hired to kill then French president Charles de Gaulle. The film is stylish, exciting, and unique. It sort of feels like a heist movie at times, but other times is more of a thriller (albeit one from the 70s).

So if you like intelligent, thrilling dramas that aren't excessively gritty or bleak (not that there's anything wrong with movies like that), The Day of the Jackal should be a well spent couple of hours.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Travel Tips: Buying Plane Tickets

In my last post I discussed (at length) the process by which Laura and I got our tickets for our up coming trip. However, I wanted to consolidate the lessons we learned into one succinct post, in case that might benefit someone. So here are a few of the things that I'd recommend if you're planning a long, overseas trip.

1. Be flexible. With work schedules this can be tough, but it can also save hundreds of dollars (or more). Keep in mind the more flexible you are, the cheaper the trip will be. And that doesn't just mean being flexible with your dates. Consider flying into different airports, visiting different places, etc. Basically, if there are a bunch of places you want to go, look at them all before you get your heart set on anything in particular, and then chose the one that's most aligned with your budget.

2. Use a travel agent for long or complex flight plans. I probably wouldn't call an agent if I was flying to San Diego to see my in-laws for Christmas because I can find ridiculously low fares for a trip like that on my own, in just a few minutes. I also know exactly when and where I'm going. However, for longer trips, where I might have some wiggle room, travel agents are very helpful.

3. Keep in mind, a travel agent will not cost you more. This is a common misconception, but if the fare or itinerary an agent gives you isn't to your liking, you don't have to buy it. They are trying to win your business, so it's their responsibility to be competitive. And a lot of the time, they will be.

4. Plan in advance. The first time I looked up fares for our trip was over a year ago. That means we were thinking about our trip at least a year and a half before it was supposed to happen. Ideally, you'd track the price of your trip for years before doing it, so you'd have a really good idea when the best time to get tickets will be (though an agent should be able to give advice about that).

5. Round up. Decide you're initially willing to spend, then add a few hundred dollars to that number and assume that's what the tickets are going to cost you. Doing this will provide a psychological cushion if things turn out to be more expensive, and if prices turn out to be cheaper (as they did for us), you'll have even more money to spend on other things during the trip. This may mean that you end up waiting a little longer to go on the trip as you save up more, but in the end you'll be less stressed out about money.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Buying Plane Tickets

Laura and I bought our plane tickets last week, after many hours of exhaustive research. This is our itinerary:

May 31: depart Salt Lake at 2:45 p.m., arrive in Dallas at 6:25 p.m., depart Dallas at 7:55 p.m.
June 1: arrive in Sao Paulo at 7:40 a.m.
June 28: depart Sao Paulo at 4:15 p.m.
June 29: arrive in London at 7:20 a.m.
Aug 4: depart Rome at 11:30 a.m., arrive in Chicago at 3:05 p.m., depart Chicago at 6:45 p.m., arrive in Salt Lake at 9:10 p.m.

Including all taxes, fees, etc., this itinerary is costing us $1864.30 per person.

Even at just a casual glance, this airfare seems pretty good for the number of flights we'll be taking, and the miles we'll be covering. So how did we get it? And could we have done even better?

First, the short answer to the first question is that we used a travel agent. However, it might be useful to explain that a little bit.

When we decided to go on a multi-continent trip, I initially wanted to use a travel agent because our goal was fairly complex. Also, all the travel writers I'd read said it would be easier and more cost efficient. That said, however, I was skeptical because travel agents have always struck me as an outdated relic from the pre-Internet days, when people couldn't figure out their own airfare. What, I wondered, was the point of using travel agents if all the savings they could get me were cancelled out by fees (I figured) I'd have to pay them?

As it turns out, however, travel agents make their money on commission and the price they give you should already include any money they're making. Also, travel agents typically have relationships and contracts with airlines and other travel agencies, which means they often have access to fares that are even lower than can be found online.

Once I learned that, I decided to contact a travel agency to see if they could compete with the fares I could find on my own. As a BYU alum, I discovered that I can continue to use the university's travel service, so I decided contact them. After calling around a bit I was finally connected to a travel agent at BYU who said he'd find some options for me.

The man I talked to got back to me within a few days, but what he gave me was almost an incomprehensible itinerary that was more expensive than the fares I found on my own (his itinerary was just under $2800 per ticket). Somehow, he must have also misunderstood what I wanted to do, because the trip he offered was less than half as long as I wanted (he had us in Brazil and Europe for about two weeks each). To cap it all off he was kind of abrupt on the phone. I'm not going to publicly name him, but if you're planning to use BYU's travel agency I will tell you privately so you can avoid a similar experience.

That was pretty discouraging, so Laura and I decided to take a stab at booking our own plane tickets. Laura spearheaded this effort and probably spent at least 30 hours over a couple of weeks looking at fares. I spent less time looking for fares, but still put in some hours.

The key, we discovered was being extremely flexible. We didn't care where we left from, flew into, or even what days we traveled on. We were willing to leave from Salt Lake, LAX, or anywhere in between. We also knew that we wanted to travel through Europe over the course of a month, but didn't care if we went north or south.

Eventually, Laura found a few options leaving from LAX that were under $2000. It would have also meant that we'd be going from Brazil to Rome, then leaving from London to return to the U.S. However, with taxes and fees, these fares were actually at least $2400, and most of the time they were closer to $2700. Also, most of them included a layover in New York that would have required us to travel from JFK airport to Newark, and that is supposedly a night mere. Still, the fares weren't prohibitively expensive and we were getting ready to buy them.

During this whole process, however, my dad recommended a different BYU travel agent. I was again skeptical, given my previous experience, but decided that since it didn't cost anything to have her look, I'd give her a call.

My experience with this second travel agent was the polar opposite of those I had with the first one. While I was on the phone, she experimented with different dates, airports, and other options. She told me exactly what she was doing and searched all the companies BYU had contracts with to find the lowest fares. She was kind and reassuring (when I bluntly asked her if she could beat the fares I had found online, she told me she could fly us around the world for those prices and began looking for something cheaper with gusto). Eventually she came up with the price I mentioned above (which was actually higher than she had expected it to be, but apparently flying from Brazil to Europe is pretty pricey). Though the prices is only a little cheaper than what online travel sites initially quoted, factoring in taxes we figure we saved at least $600 per ticket, and realistically we probably saved closer to $800 or $900. We will be using American Airlines for the first few legs of the trip, and British Airways for the second.

So that's how we got that fare. But could we have done better?

I doubt it, and if we could have the trip would have been much more stressful. For example, our flight from Brazil to Europe is non-stop. That means that we save at least a day in travel time (more time to sight-see), plus we don't have any stressful New York-to-Newark connections. We also don't have any real red-eye flights, and we won't have to drive down to LA, which should save us at least $200 in gas.

The other amazing thing about using the travel agent was that as long as there were seats available on the flights, we could get that same price. In other words, prices for each leg of the trip didn't change if we adjusted if by a few days. When we tried to book by ourselves, we found that certain days (Aug 11, for example) were cheaper than any other days around them. With the travel agent, on the other hand, we managed to extend our trip in Brazil by a couple of days, and come back at a more convenient time. In short, the travel agent offered flexibility coupled with low prices.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Movie: Food Inc.

I honor of the academy awards last night, today's film recommendation is Food Inc. I saw this film a few months ago and was impressed; it presents a whole bunch of information in a way that it understandable and compelling. It basically goes into the ways in which food production (and, thus, consumption) has changed over the last 100 years, and how that is a problem.

The film isn't perfect, though. I did feel like it was a bit scattered and lacked a cohesive narrative. Still, it was informative and I've found myself thinking about it often. The academy apparently agreed, as it was nominated (but didn't win) an academy award.

I have included a video from the movie below, however, the "official trailer in HD" has embedding disabled, so you'll actually have to go to youtube and watch it here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Travel Blogging

If you're friends with me on facebook, you may know that I recently bought plane tickets for a rather extensive trip. This summer, Laura and I will be traveling from the U.S. to Brazil, and then from Brazil directly to Europe. We leave on May 31st, stay in Brazil until June 28th, and then leave Europe on Aug 4th (so about a month on each continent). During that time I probably won't blog about anything but the trip, but I'm also planning on blogging about our preparations leading up to it.

Eventually, I am going to have a different site to chronicle the trip, and share any tips that Laura and I learn a long the way. However, in the meantime, this blog will be were I talk about the trip. I'm planning to share this information for a few reasons. First, because I think it might be interesting, at least to a few people out there. I know I love reading about my friends adventures on their blogs. Also, I've found that blogs have generally been an invaluable resource as I've been planning my own trip. My friend, for example, wrote this blog about his extensive trip in South America. Though it wasn't strictly a "travel blog" in the sense that it only talks about travel and tries to advise people, it is actually a great resource for finding out to do a trip down there.

I've also found that while I've been to a fair number of places, I know people who have traveled to just about every country in the world. Not only is it interesting to hear what different people have to say about different places, it's also been useful to me as I've been figuring out what to do. So, hopefully, my upcoming travel posts will be similarly useful and helpful. Next up: how Laura and I got cheap airfare for a long and complicated flight itinerary.

Alice in Movie Land

In honor of today's release of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, here are a couple of other interpretations of the same story. And, judging by the reviews that this newest version is getting, these other movies are probably better too.

First off is Woody Allen's Alice. I'm always surprised that Allen seems to have a movie for every occasion, and this is no exception. This film is far from my favorite Allen film, but that's not say much because I love much of his work. Plus, it is an entertaining and stimulating film. It's also not really much of a comedy. Rather, it's more of a magical-realist-dramedy. Still, it's well worth a watch.

I couldn't find the trailer online, but you can read a blurb by the New York Times about the movie here.

The second film is Phoebe in Wonderland. This is a truely delightful film that captures the child-like perspective that last year's Where the Wild Things Are strove desperately for, but most failed to achieve. The story follows a young girl as she struggles to live in an increasingly incomprehensible world. As she feels more and more unable to relate, she retreats into a fantasy land that is inspired by her mother's research on Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Text-To-Speech Websites

For some reason, I can't see my own typos. I can read the same thing ten times, and each time miss the same mistake. This was probably a problem throughout my life, but has become particularly problematic recently as I've been writing for the Daily Herald. Sometimes I'll finish a story and read over it again and again trying to catch everything, but inevitably when I turn it in to my editor, he'll see things I missed.

If you ever suffer from a similar problem, you might be interested in these awesome Text-To-Speech websites. Using them you can get your stuff proof read. Or, if you're like one of my friends, you can put R. Kelly lyrics into them and enjoy hours of entertainment! (Seriously, it is cool.) Either way, text-to-speech websites are an underappreciated corner of the world wide web.

The best site I found was this one. Its strengths are that it works quickly, and it doesn't take you to a different page to listen to the speech. Visually, the page is kind of cluttered, but the voice was also one of the best/most natural sounding that I found, so I overlooked its weaknesses. Also, I used it yesterday to proof read some stuff I wrote for the Daily Herald and was impressed at just how advanced it was. When it read over addresses, for example, that were written out as "300 N 400 West" it actually said "north" instead of just "n." Also, when it read "$20" it said "twenty dollars," as opposed to "dollars twenty." That suprised me because it meant it was scanning ahead at least a little bit.

I also found this AT&T site. It has the advantage of being less cluttered, and it's run by a company with name recognition, but it also navigates away from the home page to read the text out loud (and uses a quicktime format for the audio).

There are many text-to-speech sites out there, but so far I haven't found any that are better than that first one. So, if you're like me and you enjoy catching writing problems and listening to funny voices read stuff, check them out.

(note: I didn't use one of these sites for this post, so it probably still has problems)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Movie Monday: The Triplets of Belleville

I have a deep love for animation, so this Movie Monday is the French film The Triplets of Belleville. This movie came out in 2003 and is an affectionate and sometimes bizarre exploration of animation history. It's also a charming and has some great music.

I think it's also worth mentioning that it's very watchable. When I first saw the trailer for this movie I throught it was going to be a somewhat opaque, if enjoyable, musical that would be light on plot. While it does indeed have some great music and the plot requires significant suspension of disbelief, it is still very linear. In other words, I expected this film to be more art-house than it ended up being and it should subsequently appeal to both mainstream and indie audiences.