The Twilight of Roger Ebert

I had known from vague things that I’d read on Roger Ebert’s journal that he was ill and declining, but had not known exactly why. Today PZ Myers posted a pointer to an Esquire article that explains it all.

I had always respected Ebert’s movie reviews, even when I didn’t agree with them, but had never realized what a good writer he is until recently. His recent post on the demise of Jermyn Street in London is as good as it gets, seems to me. There’s nothing particular fancy or self-consciously artistic/literary about his writing — it’s just good solid prose with a wealth of images written in a natural, conversational style that is eminently readable and entertaining.

Ebert, like me, is a non-believer, and he writes this, quoted in the Esquire piece:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

There’s nothing fancy about the language there, but the structure and flow of the thoughts is quite powerful.

Ebert is not dying imminently, but according to the Esquire piece he’s fading very gradually.

When his last day passes, I, for one, will miss his writing terribly, but for now, I am grateful for each new post to his journal that comes along. He’s not short-winded, and for that I’m very thankful, as it means there’s more to savor. And the conversations that ensue in the comments, with Ebert participating, are worth almost as much as Ebert’s journal entries.

Addendum: Ebert himself responds to the Esquire piece and points out that the article’s “Ebert is dying in increments” line is true of all of us. Indeed, it certainly is.

Planes Crashing in your Back Yard

A plane taking off from La Guardia airport this afternoon ditched in the Hudson River around 48th Street at a little before 3:30pm this afternoon. This happens to be the stretch of the Hudson visible directly outside my window.

I posted some pictures of the view from my bedroom window recently. Here is a picture taken today at 4:15pm indicating the approximate crash site:

Site of USAir plane crash

And here’s a close-up showing the flashing lights of the rescue and police along the West Side of Manhattan:

Rescue and recovery flashing lights

The picture doesn’t really capture it, because not all the lights are on at once, but the whole Westside Highway as far as I can see is lined with flashing lights. At this point (4:50pm), NPR is confirming that miraculously everyone was rescued from the plane and has survived. The rescue was begun by New York Waterway ferries that sidled up to the floating plane within minutes of the crash landing (a resident of a tall building on the Upper Westside who witnessed the entire crash was interviewed on one of the local TV stations, and she said it was about 8 minutes from the plane coming to rest before the ferries started taking people off the plane).

It appears that pilot and crew training saved a lot of lives today — the landing was described as a picture-perfect water landing by those who witnessed it — and it seems that the crew got everyone off the plane very quickly, with most of them not even getting wet (though from pictures I saw on the TV, it seems that some of them may have gotten their feet wet standing on the partially-submerged wings of the plane waiting to board one of the rescue boats).

Since the landing around W. 48th Street, the plane has floated down the river and gradually sunk into the water (though the last footage I saw showed the tip of the tail and the top of the cockpit still above water), and last I heard it was down around Greenwich Village (the reporter said Perry Street).

A remarkable event.

I Still Can’t Believe It Happened

Today I went to the bank to deposit a check. When I was finished, the teller asked if there was anything else I’d like, and I jokingly said “I wouldn’t mind taking some of that 6″ stack of $50 bills off your hands!” She replied “No freebies today” and we both laughed as I replied “Maybe another day…” and walked away from the window. On the way out I went to the ATM to get some cash. As soon as I had my two $20 bills in my hand, and before the cash door closed, the machine barfed out a 3″ stack of $20 bills! I grabbed the bills, and waited for the machine to spit out my receipt, but it was apparently in a bad way, beeping madly while locked up. So, I took the $$ back in the bank and handed it to the same teller and explained what happened.

There was never any doubt, either before of after, that I would return the cash — it wasn’t mine, I knew where it came from and had the ability to return it to its rightful owner. But the striking thing to me was the fact that not one thought of maybe keeping all or part of the cash occurred to me until *after* I’d already returned it. Naturally, there are cameras on all the ATMs and in the ATM lobby, so if I’d tried to keep any of it, they’d know who took the money. But I didn’t even get close to that line of thought, because it was just automatic that I give it back, and it was done before I had a chance to even consider any other option.

Now, I don’t post this simply to pat myself on the back — instead, I’m expressing my surprise in retrospect that I acted so honestly, and that the thought of taking the $$$ didn’t even cross my mind. Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as an honest person, and would never take the money, but if I’d had to forecast my reaction to this situation, I would have at least *thought* about keeping it.

But that didn’t happen.

My last thought: the ATM model for voting machines (which has almost never been implemented) was perhaps not as good as I used to think it.

Astrology, Birth Month and Socialization

I place no faith whatsover in the blatherings of astrology in general, but I do think there’s one kernel of truth in it — the time of year you are born does have an effect on socialization. I don’t know how this would have played out in earlier cultures, but in the US, the key is the start of the school year, in the Fall. Whether one first goes to nursery school or kindergarten or not until 1st grade (as for me), the beginning of socialization in the school system comes for everyone at that time of year. Children born in January can be 9-10 months older than the children born at the end of the year (some school systems cut off with children born in October, so that those born in November and December start school with the children born in January of the next year — this would have some effect on my pet theory, obviously), so that a January baby who starts kindergarten in August of her 5th year will be 67 or so months old while the October baby would be only 57 or so months old. That’s almost a 20% developmental advantage for the January baby over the October baby. Surely this would shape early development and socialization to a very large degree, and in a manner that would, for a large portion of the population, be directly correlated with the time of year they were born.