Saturday, February 27, 2010

Glorious Purimshpiel

I saw the most excellent film, Inglorious Basterds, earlier, but rather than wait for all my ideas to coalesce around it I just want to say, on this Purim day, that the movie works perfectly as a Purimshpiel. It's possibly the most gloriously violent (and sadly fictional) destruction of Amalek by Jews ever shown on film.

Pic from here of the awesome Bear Jew.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oooooklahomaaaa!

Not sure why, but I was reminded recently about how much I like Jon Lovitz. It's this 80s Nostalgia stuff that we gen-Xers are allowing ourselves, who knows. Lovitz was consistantly weird and funny (and, evidently he beat up Andy Dick in 2007 - which is more than I'd dare imagine a comedic hero doing). Maybe the nostalgia was fueled by someone mentioning the state of Oklahoma.

So after looking all over the intertubes, I just can't find a clip of the super-wonderful Jon Lovitz SNL sketch from 1987: "Wedgie Fever." A sketch that permanently changed the nations view of, and pronunciation thereto, of Oklahoma.

I did find the pic from here though, and while searching the official NBC SNL clip site, I came across these two clips from the 80s which can satisfy some of the nostalgia cravings.

The first is Lovitz - who is underrated, possibly because he's quite strange - as Mephistopheles in the People's Court:


The second is possibly one of the finest from the Reagan era, if not all time. It's just a snippet of the brilliant sketch of Reagan as a competent world leader:

Me and the New Republic

We finally canceled our subscription to the New Republic. I'd like to contrast my relationship to TNR to two other magazines: The Atlantic, which I also canceled, and the New Yorker, which I've retained.

The Atlantic is a very good magazine, with a top-notch website and bloggers. But when the recession hit, I needed to cut back on frivolities, and I found that I was just not reading the Atlantic that much. Maybe a fifth or quarter of the issue. So out it went - but if my fortunes were better, I'd subscribe again because it's a quality product.

The New Yorker is both a quality product and an identity object. My family's been subscribing for decades, even through the execrable Tina Brown years, and it's part of how we see our life as public intellectuals. The writing is consistently superb - it's probably the finest source non-fiction around. They also employ fact-checkers, so you can actually trust what's between the covers. And they have cartoons.

Just a quick example of the New Yorker's excellence; last week's issue has an story about an international arms dealer, that you should read if you want to (a) know how accurate Hollywood action-thrillers are (e.g. the dealer, Monzer al-Kassar, is the son of a Syrian diplomat, buys weapons from a factory in Poland, lives in Spain, and uses third and fourth person proxies, in different countries, so to avoid violating flaccid international laws against arms trafficking; he's arrested in Spain in 1995 and after three main witnesses are compromised - somebody killed them or kidnapped their children - he's let free); (b) to know just how scary international intrigue is; and (c) read something you can trust, because as opposed to most books, magazines, and especially newspapers, everything in the article has been verified.

Anyway, what about the New Republic? Well, like the Atlantic, I found that I wasn't reading the magazine - or website - all that much. True, both magazines suffered from the end of the Bush era/2008 Election and the news-junky-dom that those terrible times created, but it's more than that. I found that I just couldn't trust what I was reading in TNR anymore. Here's why:
  1. Very Bad Reporters - Top of this list is the uber-hack James "T" Kirchick. I even asked TNR to change their editorial policy and put the authors of specific pieces at the beginning of the article rather than at the end - not only to avoid the worst of their reporters (more below) but specifically for Kirchick who is a serial fantasist, hysteric, and all-around worthless presence. James Woolcott, not usually a person I'd quote due to his persona as bilious cat queen, was spot on when defending Joe Klein in a spat with Kirchick, stating:
    "Kirchick is the Eddie Haskell of neoconservatives, a calculating little suck-up whose obsequious pieties drip like melted plastic. (To wit: "Reached for comment, Kirchick said 'McCain spent five years in a North Vietnamese torture camp. He doesn't need lessons in the horrors of war from the likes of Joe Klein.'") If Commentary made a lunch box, Kirchick is what you find packed inside, between a banana and a hand grenade. "
    There's a certain amount bathhouse politics in Woolcott's assessment, true, and my opposition to Kirchick isn't solely based on his idiot politics (gay republicans, like black republicans, are mystifying to me considering the GOP party platform is explicitly anti-gay and even more so implicitly anti-minority), but is focused on his journalistic crimes: he makes stuff up, distorts everything else, and his continued presence in TNR made me doubt the higher editorial purpose of the journal.

  2. Other bad reporters are there too, and I'd list them, but their names get confusing to me (there's like 11 Jonathans on staff) and the key is that some may get the facts right but when called on to editorialize - which is nearly all the time - their judgement/wisdom is abysmal. The mixing of editorialism and journalism is the next big issue:

  3. TNR Moved from News to Opinion - I never knew if a story could be considered journalism or an editorial. Almost every piece seemed to advocate a position and it was getting maddening. Not only do I want to read journalism from journalists - I get opinions from better people, thank you - but the opinions presented were often purposefully marginal and loopy; what has now been labeled 'Contrarianism.' I first noticed this in Slate - which is why I stopped reading them as well, about 3 years ago. Every Slate piece seemed to be angled to present an opposition to conventional wisdom, which thus meant that facts were twisted or obviated and crazy ideas were emphasized, just to be hip/catchy/shocking/whatever. Since it was clearly a marketing strategy rather than an intellectual one, I swiftly chucked the website from my reading. But then the same tone/goal seemed to spread all across the intertubes and eventually rested uneasily in TNR (see next).

  4. TNR Started to Champion 'Contrarianism' as an editorial policy - as stated above, Contrarianism (for how this is used by others, see this Economist piece) is a journalistic attitude of twisting a story's perspective to present a minority/marginal point of view. E.g. "eating cheese may lower cholesterol!" "Cheney says Obama is not a liberal!" "Spree Killers may eat too much cheese, are too liberal, says Cheney"). It's a terrible trend in journalism and it reeks of flop-sweat. This trend is especially sad given that the Obama administration is fighting gamely against the gnarled nihilistic nub of the GOP who have cynically contradicted everything the good-guys have been trying to do. But since TNR, Slate, and even the Washington Post (so I've been told), among others, are committed to contrarianism - the two intellectual tactics help each other. The GOP happily distorts facts and these journalists oblige with their own twists. It's hurting the country and I want no part of it.

  5. The Website became unusable - at one point, early in 2008, TNR's website was still a place I could go to find out breaking news in politics or what-have-you. Now, I have no idea how to use the dang thing - there's thirteen different blogs, each sharing front-page space, and it's just an addled mess.
All told, TNR had to go, and I don't see returning any time soon.

Update 1: When searching for good pics for this post, which I do after writing it, I found this story from Oct 2009 about others who hate Slate's contrariansism. Nice to know I'm not alone.

Update 2: Just had a blinding insight - contrarianism has existed on the internet for a while, but it's generally called being a 'concern troll.' While they're not exactly the same, the attitude is similar enough that I think the epithet fits.

First pic from here, second from here. Third pic comes from some dude's 4-chan pile and relates to update 2.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

High Two

When we describe our kids as geniuses, we often mean that they're precocious - i.e. that they exhibit thought processes of an age older than they are. Yet this presumption of precociousness is based on a parent's knowledge of what children are generally capable of and unless the parent is an expert in (developmental) psychology, medicine, or a child-care professional (e.g. teacher, PT, nurse, what-have-you) then the presumption could be wrong.

The 'genius/precocious' label is more reliable if the child exhibits actual adult behavior/cognition. Especially if the observed behavior/cognition is rare even within adults.

My middle child, Jota Minuscula, constantly amazes us with this genius behavior. He truly thinks outside the box and is also truly funny.

Story from last night: He and his older brother, Big B, were leaving home with their grandmother for a big-boy sleepover. I was holding their baby sister in my arms and Big B, who was dressed in his full winter ensemble, asked if I could hold the baby so he could give her a "high five" - which he did. Then Jota piped up: "No, not a high-five, a high-two because you're wearing mittens!"

Now, this whole observation would be moot if someone told Jota that joke - but we didn't know who did (I didn't). His mom admitted that she wouldn't have thought of that kind of joke, at least as an instant retort. As such, I need to assume that he just thought it up - especially because he's done stuff like that before. It's just the way his mind works.

Star Wars Revisited

I'm watching Star Wars (or as the neo-geeks call it now, "A New Hope" but as the nerds call it, "Star Wars") to see if it's apporpriate for my sons (yeah, that's the ticket). A few comments:

1. The ending sequence, the Battle of Yavin (a.k.a. The attack on the death star) is one of the best in movie history and has permanently elevated Lucas into the public discourse - it's why I even care about his later work and why I feel betrayed by his future crimes.

2. The Porkins Effect - This is what I'm now labeling the general status of Lucas' movie-making crimes. If you recall, and if you need help here's the online script, Luke's flight wing was the 'red team' with Luke as Red Five. One of his wingmates is Red Six, a.k.a. "Porkins":
INTERIOR: PORKINS' COCKPIT.

PORKINS: Red Six standing by.
Porkins, is, how do I say it, chubby. So, OK, I thought, maybe this is just a pilot nickname, like the Top Gun thing ("Maverick" "Ice man" "Certified Public Accountant"), but no: the official Lucas universe states that the character's name is Jek Porkins.

To review: despite all being White Anglo Saxon Protestant humanoids, many with classical Western names (Luke, Ben), sometimes they have made-up nonesense names (Han, Jek) that will be mixed up with real words (Solo, Porkins). And he's fat, so his name is Pork. As you see from the picture (more from here), many others have found this character problematic.

So what's my beef (pun intended) with Porkins? His name is childish, stupid, and unimaginative. And this impulse to turn fun, exciting, action into puerility is what overtook Lucas's latter films. This is related to the Ewok Effect, where serious matters are converted into cutesy-poo family-market pandering, but while Ewoks were meant to push toys, and thus demonstrates artistic integrity sacrificed for greed, Porkins is artistic integrity sacrificed for cheap laughs for six year olds.

True, both the Ewok and Porkins effects combined to create the dreaded, execrable Jar-Jar Binks, but my point here is to say that this impulse was present in even the first beloved film.

BTW, this looks like an awesome website made by fellow-travelers from my generation.

3. Inconsistencies between the Original Three and the Hated Last Three

Just for ease of use, even though the last triology were planned prequels, such that the first movie (A New Hope) is to be numbered 4, or somesuch, I declare here - in concert with all those born in the 1970s - that the original trilogy are to be numbered 1 2 and 3 while the last trilogy are to be burned at the crossroads at midnight and if they are to be referred to at all, they are to be known by their real-life chronology of 4, 5, and 6. Hear ye.

Ahem. Anyway, I am on record stating that the 6th movie, Sith, is the worst of the bunch. One reason it's atrocious is the ham-fisted attempts to make the prequels consistent with the original trilogy. Never mind that the technology of the latter trilogy is way better than what was to have taken place 20 years in the future, the biggest problem is that the entire tenor of the first three films - meant to resurrect the underdog resistance of WWII, think Casablanca - is totally undermined.

But besides tone, I now realize, seeing the first film again after a few years - possibly the first time since seeing Sith - is how many freakin' facts are wrong!

The best example is this dialogue between Obi-Wan and Luke:
LUKE: No, my father didn't fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.

BEN: That's what your uncle told you. He didn't hold with your father's ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten involved.

LUKE: You fought in the Clone Wars?

BEN: Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.

LUKE: I wish I'd known him.

BEN: He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior. I understand you've become quite a good pilot yourself. And he was a good friend. Which reminds me...

BEN: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did.
What do we learn from this:
  1. Obi Wan and Anakin were about the same age, and lived together in Tatoonie as friends,
  2. "Uncle" Owen knew Anakin and Kenobi and didn't want them to go off and fight for ideals in the Clone Wars,
  3. Anakin and Obi-Wan were already, or later became, Jedi Knights, pilots, and were already enlisting to go on an idealistic crusade.
  4. The Clone Wars seem to be already about fighting for ideals, the implication is against the Empire, and there were air-battles and tactics fought and implemented by Jedis,
  5. The "ideals" of Obi-Wan, shared by Anakin, are meant to parallel Luke's desire to fight in the rebellion along-side his boyhood friends - and thus we can learn more facts from this nearly explicit parallel (e.g. Obi-Wan's relationship with Anakin was as comrades in arms just like Luke and Biggs).
Enough. Basta. None of those facts, which are fascinating and would make a good movie/trilogy, are present in the latter three films. Which begs the question that I will resist putting in all caps: Did Lucas watch Star Wars even once before he made the second trilogy? Seriously! It's like he forgot what he did in the first three, remembered only certain details through the Southern California doobie haze, and make the latter trilogy consistent with invented facts and not the real ones.

4. Han Shot First, Just have to say it, again. It's a motto for those of us betrayed by the Crimes of George Lucas. Pic from here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Video of the Day: A-Ha Family Guy

My brother reminded me of this, one of my favorite examples of the great moments the Family Guy is capable of (amidst the majority of unwatchable-ness):


I Dooon't Knoooow?!

Update: For the original video (for people like my wife who've never seen what may be the best video of all time)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Is Normal?

The title is a subject I want to explore. Ultimately, it looks like I will be concentrating more on the Sociology of Knowledge, and this is a concept that has intrigued me. I doubt I'll be able to have this as my dissertation subject, whole or in part, but I've learned years ago to follow my brain when it comes to projects. If my brain likes it, then I should do it, because brain-likey is a pre-requisite for my completion of a subject.

The research plan is to identifying the normalizing disciplines: (1) law, above all others, regulates the standards of expectations of normal behavior. This is also a way of bringing in a study of or comparison with halakha. E.g. liability, contracts, etc use expectations of normal behavior, normal human body size, etc. (2) Medicine, does this almost as frequently, and in tandem with law.

Related to this system study will be a philosophic analysis of statistics and the "normal curve." This concept/tool is crucial for understanding the term "normal"'s use in many scientific papers - right now I'm doing a JSTOR-crawl through every article with "normal" in the title and most are from hard-science journals who, based on my quick reading, use 'normal' to refer to statistic normality based on the normal curve (e.g. "Relative Blindsight in Normal Observers and the Neural Correlate of Visual Consciousness").

The normal curve, for those who are statistics savvy, has some interesting implications for how the universe works under the seams, especially when you bring in the central limit theorem. This, as usual, gives the hard sciences, with their easy to isolate units, to have a non-political 'normal' while social science, with our gross smelly units, have socially constructed normality. More anon.

Pic from here.

Six Million Dollar Man Theme

video

I have an unnerving love for the theme song of the Six Million Dollar Man - and especially for the opening dialogue. Set to the background of bass-drums in a military cadence the dialogue is stirring, heroic, tragic, and totally cool. The following two versions of the transcript from here (fans should read the whole page):

Version one:
"It looks good at NASA One." Flight Com
"Roger." B-52 Pilot
"BCS Arm switch is on." B-52 Pilot
"Okay, Victor." Flight Com
"Landing Rocket Arm switch is on." B-52 Pilot
"Here comes the throttle." B-52 Pilot
"Circuit breakers in." B-52 Pilot
"We have separation." Steve
"Roger." SR-71 pilot
"Inboard and outboards are on." B-52 Pilot
"I'm comin' forward with the side stick." B-52 Pilot
"Looks good." Flight Com
"Ah, Roger." B-52 Pilot
"I've got a blow-out in damper three!" Steve
"Get your pitch to zero." SR-71 pilot
"Pitch is out! I can't hold altitude!" Steve
"Correction, Alpha Hold is off. . . Threat selector is emergency!" B-52 Pilot
"Flight Con! I can't hold it! She's breaking up, she's break—" Steve

Version Two:
"Oscar to NASA One." Oscar
"Roger." NASA One
"VP is armed switch is on." Victor
"Okay, Victor." Oscar
"Lighting Rods are armed switch is on. Here comes the starter, circuit breakers in." Victor
"We have separation." Victor [This is actually Lee Major's voice, as is the next one.]
"Roger." Oscar
"Inboard and outboards are on. Come a-port with the sidestick." NASA One
"Oscar?" Oscar
"Uh, Roger." NASA One
"I've got a blowout — vapor three!" Oscar
"Get your pitch to zero." NASA One
"Pitch is out — I can't hold altitude." Oscar
"Direction alpha hold is off — try trajectory emergency." NASA One [this may be a reference to the emergency rockets]
"Flight Comm! I can't hold it! She's breaking up, she's break..." Oscar

The above video was made by me combining a pic from here with the sound from here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Temptations and Serious Music

I grew up listening to the Temptations. I got lucky, I guess, because my High School library in Ithaca had records (no CDs) and we had a record player at home, and I was able to listen (Leo Strauss would emphasize that I did not transfer these records to audio-tape for listening later) to this music over and over. I was primed to know the artists because I listened to Ithaca College radio for hours, especially on Sunday afternoons where they had, from 10:00 am - 12:00 pm "Breakfast with the Beatles" and 12:00-6:00pm "Classic Rock Sunday." I listened every week, for years. IC was a center for training professional broadcasters, so this wasn't hippie ganja-smoking alternative dumpage but well-trained jocks spinning quality music.

So, I had a good environment (IC radio), experience (listening for hundreds of hours), and resource access (HS library, record player at home) for choosing among many different types of music. It was at this time that I fell in aesthetic love with Jethro Tull (and to a lesser extent with the other Flute-Rock dudes, Traffic), but primarily with the Temptations. I also had access to the Four Tops, and the two bands are often compared (and confused with each other). It's not hard to see why, superficially, this confusion exists: 4 vs. 5 young black men singing syncopated R&B and produced by the same label (Motown).

Even though I felt that musically the Temptations were just plain better than the Tops, I couldn't begrudge the latter's top tunes: "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out, I'll Be There," "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," and "Bernadette." Yet, I gravitated to the Temptations who I subconscious appreciated on a greater level.

After years of listening, I realize one reason that I may have been attracted to the Tempts and not the Tops could be the inherent seriousness of the Temptations' songs and lyrics. Just now I did the research online and it's clear that there were main songwriting teams for each group, and they did not share, and that the crew behind the Tops (Holland-Dozier-Holland) wrote catchy love songs and the crew behind the Temptations, Norman Whitfield & Barry Strong, wrote serious deep music. To cite the Wiki:
[Whitfield/Strong wrote] the long line of "psychedelic soul" records by The Temptations, including "Cloud Nine", "I Can't Get Next to You", "Psychedelic Shack", "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)", and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone",
Even without knowing that there were these distinct schools, just compare the themes of the top-scoring songs:

"Standing in the Shadows of Love" = The moment of realization when love goes sour
vs.
"Cloud Nine" = singer's faux-autobiography of poverty leading to drug abuse

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" = uh, the singer can't help himself because he loves his woman so much
vs.
"Runaway Child, Running Wild" = the sad fate of teenage runaways

"Bernadette" = a woman, named Bernadette, makes lovin' hard
vs.
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" = the difficult life of broken families and deadbeat dads.

"Baby I Need Your Loving" = The singer, speaking to his woman, whom he calls 'baby', states that he needs her loving, in fact he got to have all of it.
vs.
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" = a plea for sanity in a world beset by war, poverty, and declining trust in institutions of leadership.

I could go on, but you get the pattern. True, the Tempts had they cheezy songs as well (e.g. "My Girl") but I could make a claim that were deeper, more soulful, than the others, but I won't bother with that direction - because the Tops did not have deep songs and the Temptations had dozens - even from artists other than Whitfield/Strong.

This insight struck me the other day and a little googling confirms the stunning pattern, and why I recommend their music with confidence. That even though they are best known for their flashy costumes and choreography (allmusic states in the first line of their biography: "Thanks to their fine-tuned choreography -- and even finer harmonies -- the Temptations became the definitive male vocal group of the 1960s;") their serious music is why they should be given the most respect.

Pic from here.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Philipine Karaoke Killings

OK, this is from my wife. I've sent a link to the Dave Barry Blog (who amazingly has not referenced the story, possibly because he's face-deep in a beer filled kiddie pool in the Miami hosted superbowl. Anyway, this could be one of the craziest articles I've read: Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord. Some choice quotes:
"The authorities do not know exactly how many people have been killed warbling “My Way” in karaoke bars over the years in the Philippines, or how many fatal fights it has fueled. But the news media have recorded at least half a dozen victims in the past decade and includes them in a subcategory of crime dubbed the “My Way Killings.”" ... "In the past two years alone, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone at a bar and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” "

"Stand-alone karaoke machines can be found in the unlikeliest settings, including outdoors in rural areas where men can sometimes be seen singing early in the morning."

"But in karaoke bars where one song costs 5 pesos, or a tenth of a dollar, strangers often rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily. A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons."
Pic from here of some weirdness from Japan.

Who Knew Greece Was the Party Country?

From my brother, in today's Times story quietly entitled: Is Greece’s Debt Trashing the Euro?, we read this:
"Striking is a bit of a national sport in Greece. Last month, the country’s unionized prostitutes took to the streets, protesting unlicensed competition from Russian and Eastern European immigrants."
I am speechless.

Pic from here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Groundhog Day Alert

The official song of Groundhog Day: I Got You Babe (played over and over and over)



By the way, you heard it here first (unless I mentioned it last year) that Groundhog Day and Tu B'Shvat carry the same meaning: that each day is 6 weeks before spring. Pigday if the pig sees (and/or doesn't see) his shadow, and Tu B'shvat can be either 6 weeks before the start of Spring - defined as Rosh Chodesh Nisan - or 10 weeks (in a leap year)