My Favorite Things, Feb. 2009

In the tradition of Maria von Trapp, the Bureau Staff talks about what they’ve been into lately.

If you’d like to tell us what book you’re reading, album you’re listening to, YouTube video you’re watching, or whatever, drop us a roughly 250-word line at

In my life, few things elicit as much envy as a man who can fix stuff. I have two brothers-in-law who are adept with hammer and nail, so imagine my sense of inadequacy when I hear about the backyard fence constructed from scraps made to look brand new, the heat-retaining siding on the walls of the guest room, and the chicken coop built from scratch. I listen to these tales of practical, manly competence and update my photo blog with a sigh.

So picture my joy when Christmas morning brought a shiny new Black and Decker tool set. With joy approaching levels of the Great Christmas of ’96 (Nintendo 64!), I gazed over all the bits, screws, and wrenches a man could ever hope for. The hammer’s got a rough grip for steady thumping, and the electric cordless drill emits a visceral WHIRRRRRR with every clench of the trigger. I’ve never fixed stuff because I’ve never had “the right tools for the job.” Right?

My first chance to put the kit to use came when I tinkered with my creaky metal bed frame. It pings and clangs with every shift of weight, which sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night. I whipped out my socket wrench, fastened on the 1/2″ socket, and shimmied under the frame. I tightened up some loose bolts and tested it with a few bounces, but the squeaks still rang out. So I loosened some screws, jammed wadded up Kleenex into the offending friction points, and re-tightened. Success! My shiny new tools may have helped reduce the noise, but I also learned that sometimes the most effective tools are right in front of us. – Bureau Writer Daniel Adler

I don’t play a lot of videogames, but I wish I had the time to. I blew through the latest Prince of Persia game in about twelve hours, and while critics blasted it for offering too few gaming hours and a single difficulty setting, I think its surprisingly short length and ease were two of the title’s strengths.

Prince features a distinct aesthetic of bright, pastel landscape where I, as the semi-cell-shaded Prince, leapt, climbed, and swung through a fantastical topography of floating islands and majestic Arabian ruins. But even more an impressive than the visuals is the writing. Through charming, witty dialogue, the game develops a lush, detailed backstory to accompany its visual experience. The storytelling is fairly straightforward, just well executed, but without revealing too much, the surprisingly postmodern ending reinforces the idea that videogames are really interactive narratives.

Carefully crafted storytelling is far and few in games—especially outside of RPGs and the Metal Gear Solid franchise—but Prince of Persia proves that you don’t need to rack up hours upon hours of play time to experience the best of what videogames have to offer. — Bureau Editor Kevin Nguyen

When the professors aren’t around, every students will confess to using Wikipedia as a point of reference. The younger generation seems to trust the internet more than anyone else (exception: old people and Nigerian money laundering). So even though our professors grandstand against the dangers of using a freely edited resource, Wikipedia is often used as a starting point for learning a topic.

Nothing’s been more useful than looking up political philosophers on Wikipedia. Have you ever read Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia? Politics is often culpable of too much jargon (what is consociationalism anyway?), but political philosophy takes it way too far. Nozick comes up with some weird ones: Utility Monster (really interesting), Experience Machine, Demoktesis, and Entitlement Theory. Other political philosophers are just as elusive, like John Rawls’s idea of Overlapping Consensus or the Original Position (also interesting). Just try Michael Walzer’s jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

It’s interesting stuff, but reading it straight through is difficult. Fortunately, Wikipedia often has a useful article for every individual concept, making it easier to piece entire philosophies together. Now when I’m in class, I’ll be the smart kid that everyone will hate… until someone vandalizes a page and I tell my professor that Machiavelli was, in fact, a seal catcher from Swaziland. — Bureau Writer Jordan Barber

Legally Blonde: The Musical, The Wedding Singer on Broadway, Cats—who wrote this crap? Recent contemporary musical producers seem to be in a race to find the most random story line to add time steps to. Really, why couldn’t ABBA stay a non-visual experience?

But among all these weird resurrections one has been on my mind lately: Ragtime. The 1998 Tony Award winner for Best Book and Best Score, based on E.L. Doctrow’s classic novel, is actually very compelling. It’s all about the turn of the century and the rise of equality in America. Coalhouse Walker might be one of the most upstanding characters in American literature. Maybe it was because of Barack Obama’s recent inauguration or the idea of returning to my homeland, but Ragtime was my score of choice as I lived in Japan this past quarter of school. Favorite tracks include “Make Them Hear You” and “Your Daddy’s Son.” – Bureau Contributor Alice Stanley

The Wire generated so much spontaneous adulation last year that it’s easy to become frustrated by the bandwagoners and forget that the show deserves the attention. So, if you want to feel like you did when you first got into The Wire, pick up a copy of David Simon’s 1991 book Homicide. Simon, co-creator of The Wire, spent a year with the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit, recording everything in this 600-page tome. He follows new cases (the murder of a little girl) and cases that raise grim questions (a shooting that may or may not involve a cop); he recounts victories (a detective avenges his blind friend by intuiting a key piece of evidence) and frustrations (a top-priority case that holds nothing but loose ends). He humanizes the mythic murder detective, showing that their job is, well, a job.

And, as any Wire fan would expect, he offers plenty of insight into Baltimore’s history, sociology, and politics. But Simon approaches these subjects more delicately in Homicide. He makes no bold pronouncements about societal poisons, he treats institutions with respect along with his familiar skepticism, and he does not construct elaborate, didactic allegories. Unlike The Wire, Homicide is not David Simon’s interpretation of Baltimore. It’s the real Baltimore as reported by David Simon. And, because in 1991 he still remembered the story was bigger than him, Homicide may be Simon’s best work. – Bureau Editor Nick Martens