Thursday, May 31, 2007

LingAlert: "An" Added to Endangered List

I've been tracking this one for a few years now, and I think it's official: The article "an" will disappear from the American English lexicon in our lifetimes.

Have you even noticed? It used to be, "Hey, can you grab me an apple." Now, more and more, it's, "Hey, can you grab me a apple?" This is one of those language developments that makes no sense to me because it doesn't make anything easier. It's smoother to say "an" before a noun beginning with a vowel, yes? Yet, people choose the hard, awkward way. Kind of like how "how's your workload?" has turned into "hey, what's your bandwidth looking like today?" (I've also never understood how "being on the same wavelength"--a more techie saying--has been replaced by "being on the same page" in an age when no one reads books. Anyway...)

My only theory on the disappearance of "an" is to round up the usual suspect: hip hop. If you love hip hop like I do--and you know I'm lying--you'll notice that "an" is linguata non grata among the gold-toothed crowd. And in that context, it works. Kind of like "I can't get no satisfaction" sounds a helluva lot better than "I cannot acquire for myself one solitary morsel of satisfaction, yo." Thus, the progression from Jay-Z to my daily life can be charted as follows:



Has anyone else noticed a occurrence of this recently?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Puke and Poop

So many things to talk about... the possible resurgence of the Minnesota Twins; the truly riveting Eugene O'Neill piece on public television last night that reminded me how pathetic it is that I've never seen or read an O'Neill play; the hilarious convenience of the Republican argument that it's hypocritical to be wealthy and liberal. The fact that marketing and advertising people are and always will be the bitches of the corporate world. But let's talk about something serious.

Let's talk about puke and poop.

I received the email from Anne yesterday at 3:41 p.m. "James just threw up..." She was on her way to pick him up at daycare. I don't know what it is about puking. I'm not normally a worry-wart parent. When he's with babysitters and Anne and I are out for dinner or on a trip, I never worry for a second about his health or safety. It's almost scary, almost negligent, as a matter of fact. I don't marinate him in sunscreen or make him wear a helmet just for leaving the house. I don't keep up with product recalls or irradiate every piece of food before it reaches his lips. But when he pukes, my stomach goes into sympathy sick mode and tightens up like... like a... I can't think of an original simile here. A knot, okay? A really tight knot.

When I got home, I saw the classic sign of puke #2: a Rorschach pattern on the couch. Damn. I had hoped for a walk-off hurl; now he was going for the cycle.

When puke #3 came just 30 minutes later, I knew we were in for a long night. The worst puke fest we'd ever seen with James came when he was one, and he ukeleled every half hour, five times. Number 3 was so violent (I was holding the plastic pale as liquid gushed through his mouth and nose), I asked Anne to call the nurse line. The only thing that calmed me down during the aforementioned five-barf episode was classic expectation management: The nurse had told us that something was going around, he would ralph 5-6 times every 20-30 minutes, and it would be done. And it was.

When the nurse called back this time, I got what I wanted. "Something has been going around," she said. That was the good news. Fears of food poisoning, plague, bird flu or ecoli bacteria from the sloppy Joe's he had for lunch dissipated. But there was some bad news, too. "You can expect that he'll continue this pattern for up to 12 hours, and in 50 percent of the cases we've seen, there's diarrhea as well."

Twelve hours? Twelve f***ing hours? That would put us at 3:30 a.m. No way. The kid doesn't have that much in him. Does he?

We had to regulate his water intake... two teaspoons every five minutes until bed. Too little, and he'd get dehydrated. Too much, and the vomit comet would orbit even faster. We turned on the TV and let him watch whatever crap he wanted to, just to keep him fairly sedate (including the transcendently annoying "Sponge Bob Square Pants," which included an episode where a bunch of sea creatures eat crappy fast food and... you guessed it, barf). I tried to assure James that each time he had a "big cough" (his term), he was one step closer to getting better. Secretly, I was eyeing the oven clock every time I set it for another five minutes... 3:30 a.m.? No frickin' way.

The rest of the evening is somewhat of a blur. Each time he managed to go more than 30 minutes without kissing the porcelain shrine, we had a glimmer of hope that it was over. Then it would come. Numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are indistinguishable. All I remember is that we even made a game out of counting them. The kid DOES like numbers, you know.

When we put him to bed, it seemed that the worst was behind us. Then at 10:45... you guessed it. The wretched retching sound crackled through the monitor once again. When I arrived in his room, he was sitting on the floor and said, pathetically to break your heart, "That was number nine." Good counting, James!

As Anne and I cleaned up, I noticed him heading for the kitchen. Not wanting him to guzzle too much water, I made chase, only to find that he had now joined that extra special 50 percent who suffer this al Qaeada virus in two orrifices. A whole new ballgame.

At 11:00 p.m., I was throwing the Walgreen's bag into the back seat of my car. Contents: more wipes and a pack of pull-ups... something the kid hasn't worn in nearly a year. It was the only type of diarrhea management that seemed feasible in the wee hours of the night.

Puke #10 woke me at 12:30 a.m. Then #11 announced itself just 30 minutes later. A gusher, this one. I wondered if the ailment had a bookend pattern, and maybe this was its grand finale. Thank God, I was right. It was the last puke of the ordeal, and the poo never returned. I was only awoken one more time, around 2:00, when he fell out of bed.

I friend of mine once said, "I knew I was a parent when I found myself eating a sandwich with one had and mopping up puke with the other." Truer and more beautiful words have never been spoken.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Movie Scribbles: Junebug

Anne and I watched the DVD of "Junebug" on Saturday. This is a barely noticed indie flick from 2005 that earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Amy Adams, and it's absolutely fascinating in the way it confounds the conventions of character development.

The beginning is confusing, as two people meet, almost wordlessly, in an urbane setting. It then shifts to rural North Carolina, and--swear to God--these two main characters go 75 minutes before they have what I would call a conversation. The whole movie could easily be marketed as an indie, quirky southern American movie. But it isn't. It is indie. It is quirky. And it is Southern. But it somehow manages to feed and destroy every stereotype of those three things along the way.

We have the inert, detached father who spends his time woodworking in the basement, but he's more than that. We have the worldly Brit who could easily judge the Southern family and find it "quaint," but she doesn't. We have the good brother and the bad brother, but their dynamic doesn't fall easily into the Prodigal Son archetype. The character who seems dumb and oblivious turns out to have the richest emotional range. The artist who's compassionate on the subject of slavery turns out to be a rabid Jew-hater.

I think the movie itself is about duality. Family lies at the center, but no one really knows who anyone is. In other words, it's a movie that dares to find everybody complex. If "Syriana" made a point that the economic and political dynamics of world petroleum production are so complex as to be incomprehensible, "Junebug" is saying that the same truth holds for the inner workings of every individual.

For screenwriters, especially dramatic screenwriters, the movie is worth the time for one particular scene... an exchange between two people in a hospital that is one of the most realistic and brilliant I've ever seen. It must have looked strange on the page to have the conversation move from death to peanuts and back again, but such is life.

One final note... I think the part of the movie that really made me smile was a series of shots of empty rooms. I remember my MFA profs talking about the brilliance of Virginia Woolf bringing inanimate objects to life in "To the Lighthouse." These scenes reminded me of that, as well as John Huston's beautiful shots of empty, wintry Irish landscapes over the final voiceover of "The Dead."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Brad Part Deux

I've been giving more thought to this whole "Brad" thing, and the conspiracy is thickening. I mean, is it any accident that "brad" is the common name of the brass fastener that is used to bind a screenplay?

And what about this: One of the McKnight finalists is a guy named Michael Starrbury. I've never met him, but I hear he's a nice, young guy. He's already won a McKnight, and word is, he's very, very talented. His finalist screenplay is called, "A Life Supreme," and from all indications, it sounds like he's created some kind of filmic version of John Coltraine's "A Love Supreme," a work so revered it even has its own church in California. This guy has balls.

The only other contest I've heard from so far is Script P.I.M.P. The first thing they do is announce random winners of a bunch of trinkets and trash before they really start evaluating screenplays. They announced these random winners on May 16. Who was among the RANDOM winners chosen from thousands of entries? Michael Starrbury.

One of my favorite parts of "Being John Malkovich" is how Craig (John Cusack) is haunted by the success of Derek Mantini, a fellow puppeteer who does showy stunts like operating a five-story marionette of Emily Dickinson. Then there's Salieri in "Amadeus," who is continually foiled by the pesky, plucky Mozart.

I am therefore changing my name to Craig Salieri. I'll just call you Brad.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Don't Get Cocky

First, there was ScreenplayGate: I felt pretty good about "Deadbeat Boyfriends," thought I had a decent shot at the McKnight Fellowship, then found out that not only did I not make the finals, but I lost to a vampire movie.

Then there was today.

I headed to Life Time Fitness over lunch with my new racquetball racket in tow. I purchased the Ektelon Triple Threat with the aid of a Sports Authority gift card from my parents (a birthday present). Tired of ellipital machines, and knowing that I'll be feasting over lunch tomorrow at a new Brazilian steakhouse, I thought it wise to test out the new racket and work up a little sweat. I've been slowly getting back into racquetball over the last few months, playing against a designer in our office who has proven to be fairly easy prey. (His nickname is "The Hurricane"; I've boasted that I've turned him into more of a tropical storm the two times we've played.)

That's when Brad arrived.

He knocked on the glass door and asked if I was waiting for anyone. "No," I said, instantly suspicious (of what, I don't know). "Want to get in a game, then?" he asked. Considering how lame it would sound to say "no, I just want to hit around by myself like a loser," I agreed to one game.

It was 14-1 before I rallied for a meager 3 points to make it not-quite-so-unrespectable for a 14-4 loss.

Never get cocky. There's always a Brad out there knocking on the door, and he might be a vampire.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Accidental Band Name Generator

Starting about a year ago, after my agency did a promotion that included creating a santa@a-s-i.com email address that went to me, I started to receive strange spam.

The topic wasn't unusual or original... BUY THIS PENNY STOCK NOW, BE A GARBILLIONAIRE TOMORROW! But the utter nonsense of the subject lines intrigued me--so much so that I didn't bother telling our IT department to shut down the address. It was obviously the latest way to circumnavigate spam filters. The day had long since passed when you could write "You've got to see this!" in a subject line and expect NOT to get snared like so many dolphins in a tuna net.

I quickly realized what a fantastic band name generator this spam was. So on my birthday (a day when I'm feeling old but not profound), I thought I'd list the best from the hundreds I've received. (I'll eventually reveal my overall favorite, but if anyone out there is listening, I'd like your opinion, too.)

anguished sandblast
breathtaking pervert
casualty skillet
condemnation bungalow
continuation vertigo
deviant mayonnaise
evaporation mystery
gorgeous curfew
hump strategically
I am stuck in a sandwich
intermission cola
itchy output
junk food insult
loiter roast
nausea blacktop
slaughter gavin macleod
snuggle streak
sponge cake engraving
the out of
thingamajig succulent

Thursday, May 17, 2007

New Song Idea Blooming

I have some new lyrics in search of a song... which hasn't happened in quite awhile. The open line would be:

Is there anything that you can do
To turn a white hydrangea blue?


I imagine a young man saying it to the flower specialist behind the counter. Her answer is something like:

Tell you something, it never fails
Bury it with some rusty nails

Where it goes from there, I have no idea. But somehow the whole conversation about turning a white hydrangea blue has to be both a metaphor and the subtext for a tension between them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's Really American

Yesterday I listened to Dan Barreiro rant on KFAN about some people's attempts to get junk food out of schools. Then I remembered a stance he took last week on beer in Major League Baseball clubhouses, and wondered if there was some inconsistency.

Last week, the issue was baseball's tradition of drinking beer in the clubhouse after games (this in reaction to the drunk-driving death of the Cardinals' pitcher, who apparently started his binge in the clubhouse). Barreiro looked at it from the perspective of the club owners, and wondered, "Why should you be allowed to drink beer on the job if you play baseball, but not if you're in any other occupation?" It was an interesting question--something I'd never considered before. Sure, he said, players can leave the clubhouse and go to any bar they want. They're adults, fine. But as a team owner, why would you allow it in your house?

But then with the "junk food in schools" issue, he ranted about how we can't have laws do our parenting for us. He's right, although it should be noted that he isn't a parent and has no idea what it's like. Parents do seem to be increasingly incapable of saying "no," and yes, occasionally people want the legal system (or the teacher, or the cop, or the nanny) to do their parenting for them. Not surprising in a culture where people think they can eat anything they want, and then just take Lipitor to save them from sudden cardiac arrest.

But wait a minute... what about that "owner's" perspective? As a state governor, head of a school district, or individual principal, wouldn't you want to have an environment that encouraged health and lengthened attention spans... and that didn't contribute to the fact that kids (and their parents) are fucking fat? Barreiro noted that most schools are within 500 feet of a Burger King anyway, and finally (sarcastically) offered, "Why don't we just make fast food illegal?" A direct contradiction of his perspective on bars near the clubhouse. I guess he thinks kids are more responsible than baseball players.

It reminded me of a Rush Limbaugh rant I once heard, where he called some group of liberals "unpatriotic" because they dared to criticize McDonald's... which then reminded me that the most blatently "patriotic" of all businesses are convenience stores/gas stations: SuperAmerica, Union 76, Freedom. You can't be in the convenience store business without waving the flag. I love SuperAmerica and go there all the time (mostly for gas and fee-free Wells Fargo ATMs), but is sending money to countries that fund Wahhabi Islamist groups and selling shitty food to Americans really the most red-white-and-blue thing we can do?

Barreiro said, "You can't just shut down the culture!" The culture. Fast food. Trans fat. Hydrogenated fat. Corn syrup. Sugar. The culture.

Damn. When I lived in Ireland and needed a jolt of Uncle Sam, I'd go to Dublin and get a Big Mac. I guess it's true...

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Real Culture War

I'm probably not the first person to think this, write this or even blog about this... but it seems to me that the real culture battle right now is not between Judeo-Christianity and secularism; it's between intelligence and masculinity.

The underlying tactic used by the neocon right has become pretty apparent to me over the years: Always question your opponent's masculinity. Thus, "resolute" vs. "flip-flopper"; "victory" vs. "defeatism" and "cut and run"... plus all the talk about "handouts" vs. "personal responsibility," gun worship, and especially the basest form of schoolyard bullying: hating the fags. The real agenda: Make it very, very hard to be a man and be a Democrat... especially in the post-9/11 era.

It's pretty simple when you think about it. But so is the solution. The subtext to any argument coming from the left needs to be, "What are you afraid of?" I've often wished there were a website called paralleluniverse.com (whoops, URL is already taken) where you could get a glimpse of what Fox News would look like if everything were the same today, except that for the last six years, the president has been a Democrat.

There would be a counter in the lower right-hand corner of every newscast: Days that Osama bin Laden has run free since 9/11: 2,071. There would also be an accompanying counter in the lower left: Money we've wasted on the wrong guy. (This counter already exists at costofwar.com. As of this morning, we're approaching $426 billion.)

The key to success right now is to take the more enlightened position (believing in evolution, funding stem cell research, believing that homosexuals are 100 percent human, acknowledging that Iraq has made things worse for us, declaring war on carbon) while marketing it in the most masculine way.

The War in Iraq: "What kind of pussies are we that we refuse to take on the real playground bully? Maybe we should send bin Laden a few billion dollars to buy him a recliner for his his cave dwelling. What are we afraid of?"

Universal Health Care: "America is a family. I believe in family values, and that means taking care of my family by keeping them healthy and safe. For the people who refuse to do this, I say what are you afraid of?"

Global Warming: "Are we going to take this shit from Mother Nature? We're in the oven, she's turning up the gas, and we're saying, 'Let me help you; here's a match.' I mean, what are we afraid of? Are you saying Americans are incapable of innovation?"

Or... "Why do we keep giving bullets to the terrorists? Every drop of imported oil is an enabler. Every American river, gust of wind, blade of switch grass and atom of uranium is a missile aimed at Osama bin Laden's forehead. To the wimps who cower in fear at the idea of something as harmless as better fuel efficiency standards, I ask, "What are you afraid of?"

You also have to preempt the tired "tax and spend" label by accusing our opponents of passive policies of "wait and waste." It's really easy to sit back insist that you'll never raise taxes (as our governor is doing), but it's a little like saying, "I don't know what illnesses my son is going to contract in his lifetime, but I'll tell you one thing, I'm never, EVER going to give him penicillin."

Friday, May 11, 2007

LingAlert: "Sort of" Is the New "Like"


This one has been brewing for awhile. Maybe it's just in the agency world, but the agency world has given us "pushback" (did you give them any pushback?), "bandwidth" (I need a proposal written... what's your bandwidth today?") and many others.

"Sort of" is the new "like." It's basically "like" for adults. A teenager might say, "Why is everybody, like, so up in my grill today?" An adult says, "Can you give us an idea of sort of your approach to sort of tapping new strategic markets in sort of your core areas of expertise?"

I don't know where it came from, but I think it has the same basic function as "like." A researcher actually, like, studied teenagers who use "like" a lot and determined that it wasn't a function of laziness or lack of vocabulary; it's really about uncertainty and lack of confidence. I think "sort of" is the same way. It gives the person you're talking to a sense that you're trying to get to know their business, while also giving you license to throw out a lot of meaningless buzz words and hide your underlying lack of knowledge about the topic at hand.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cheap Trick Is Better Than Radiohead

Yesterday, I found myself listening to the newest Cheap Trick album, "Rockford." This morning on the train, I had Radiohead's "Amnesiac" going directly into my brain via the iPod. Cheap Trick, which has been in a permanent state of Washed Up since Dream Police, is a more enjoyable listen, I'm sorry. I know it's blasphemy.

I don't discount Radiohead. As I listened to "Amnesiac" riding backwards through South Minneapolis at 50 miles an hour, I wondered why something borne out of such obvious musical and artistic talent could strike me as so... not artsy, not pretentious... I'd have to say simply, boring. I like "The Bends." I like "OK Computer" quite a bit. I can even appreciate "Kid A." But this...

It made me think about why people like me gravitate toward bands like Wilco, while others worship Radiohead, and see the Wilcos (forget about the Cheap Tricks) as poor Midwestern substitutes.

It's about voice.

It's not purely about lyrics for me. It's not even really about storytelling, although both play a role. It has something to do with grounding. But it's really about voice. I find no interest in most Top 40/American Idol-style singing, because I see affectation... kids imitating other singers. They have amazing voices--voices I would kill to have myself--but they're acting. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is the other extreme. He uses his voice as a color in the palette, another sound to rivet into the overall sonic architecture. It rarely has any personality, and it seldom reveals anything. In fact, on the first few tunes of "Amnesiac," it's so treated by studio effects that it blends almost seamlessly into the other synthesized noises. That's not a criticism; I think it was a conscious decision.

Which brings me to Robin Zander.

The guy is what... 55? And he's always been of the most underappreciated voices in rock 'n' roll. What's truly impressive on "Rockford" is his range. He can still scream and wail with the best of them. He has a unique way of sliding from one note to the next... a faux pas for the classically trained (think about Surrender: "I've known her all these yeeeeears!"). And on one song, "O Claire" (is it any wonder people don't take Cheap Trick seriously?), he shows impressive range--a Bono-esque shift from falsetto to full voice over the same melody, pulling out that wicked slide in the chorus, and actually singing with genuine feeling about losing somebody.

I get more out of that performance, and everything I've heard on the new Wilco album, "Sky Blue Sky," than I get from "Amnesiac." I don't discount Radiohead as art. But it's the difference between examining an interesting chair in the Chambers Hotel and walking toward a fire on a Lake Michigan beach.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Smart People Acting Dumb

Mitt Romney was asked the question last week, "What do you dislike most about America?" He stumbled a bit, said he was at a loss for words, talked about how much he loves America and "the American people," and as was apparently required for the Republican debate, used the question to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan.

When Bill Maher asked the same question of his panel, former Congressman (and current head of the Democratic Leadership Council) Harold Ford muttered something like "we could be a little more tolerant than we are at times..." and then used the "look/reality" bridge to talk about something else. (Watch for this. In response to any difficult question, a politician will say, "Look, Bill, you can say what you want about x, but the reality of it is this...")

It's childish and absurd that public figures have to avoid this question. I understand why. The minute you give an honest answer, opposing forces will throw the clip on YouTube and brand you as an America-hater. I get that. (If Al Franken wins the nomination and runs against Norm Coleman, this is all you're going to see.)

But it's still childish and absurd. Love is about engagement. The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference. I love my son more than anything in the world, but I still have fantasies about pushing him down a flight of steps. I don't need to go into the psychology behind this. Chris Rock has already done it.

What I hate about America right now is that we're a nation of smart people acting dumb. You know the kind of person I'm talking about. You went to high school or college or work with him or her.

Who's at the forefront of this uniquely American phenomenon? Weathercasters.

"It was 75 degrees in Central Park today... kinda strange for mid-December, but put on your sunscreen and enjoy! Bob, back to you." You're a trained meteorologist. You presumably have a degree in something. You know that the atmosphere is laced with more carbon right now than at any time since the Pleistocene Era. That's because we've burned up everything that was formerly alive in the Pleistocene Era. You're a smart person. Stop acting dumb.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Great New Tweedy/Wilco Song

Their new album is out in a week, and this song is apparently NOT on it, but what a great little throw-back pop tune...

Monday, May 7, 2007

Portrait of the Artist as a 4-Yr.-Old Boy

Just finished a music video of James' birthday fiesta on April 29. What a kid.

How to Get People to Move Out of Your Way


If you're walking in a busy area (say, the Minneapolis skyway system), and you feel like you're always the one who has to move for other people, do this:

Look anywhere but straight ahead.

I'm serious, it works. Look to the left. Look to the right. Read while you walk. Hell, close your eyes. It says to other people, "This guy's not paying attention, so I have to move or else he's going to run into me."

I tried it this afternoon and got good results.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Movie Reviews: "The Lives of Others," "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"


Anne and I saw two movies this weekend: "The Lives of Others" (at the theater, no less) and, at home on DVD, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." Both are worth seeing.

"The Lives of Others" is a German film that managed to earn some Oscar nominations in 2006. It takes place in East Germany, years before glasnost is on the horizon. A harsh Stasi agent spends his days eavesdropping on a playwright whom he suspects of anti-Socialist leanings, and through that process comes to care (too much for his professional well-being) about the man and the people, art and ideas he loves.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is a documentary about the Nixon Administration's surveillance of John Lennon in the early 70s. During this time, Lennon was living in New York and causing quite a stir with his anti-Vietnam War activities. The film is cut (a bit too obviously at times) to draw parallels between that president and this president, that war and this war, that culture of spying and paranoia, and this culture of spying and paranoia.

The films seemed similar on the surface, and it's true that the elements of government-sponsored spying did open my eyes a bit. On Friday, the uber-drab German film reminded me why it's so luxurious to be an American. On Saturday, I was reminded that the "betterness" of America, like so much of our self-belief, can be based more on idealism and theory than on reality. We have the same fears as the now-extinct East German Socialists. We have similar methods and goals. Our government can overreach at will, especially now. The difference is that the GDR of the early 80s was probably spying on half of its citizens, while the U.S. of A. in the 1970s was spying on John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Rubin and Bobby Seales. The U.S. of the year 2007... well, I'll admit that for the first time ever it occurred to me that one too many snide letters to the editor could cause a mouse to click somewhere in the bowels of Homeland Security. (Imagine the square-jawed FBI agent being treated to incendiary conversations like, "Hey Anne, it's me. Do I need to stop at Whole Foods and pick up some milk and bananas on the way home?")

But what struck me most after watching both movies had nothing to do with politics or the limits of governmental authority. It was the fact that movies about voyeurism are so doggone riveting. In fact, truth be told, "The Lives of Others" has much more in common with "Rear Window" that it does with "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." (There's a scene in "Rear Window" when Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly witness the character they call "Miss Lonely Hearts" push a young man out the door, then collapse in tears on the tiny kitchen table. They guiltily lower their lenses, and Jimmy Stewart says, "Maybe Doyle was right. This is pretty private stuff out there." That's pretty much the same conclusion the Stasi agent comes to.)

What is it about movies with voyeuristic themes that's so enticing? Tomes have been written about how the silver screen itself is nothing more than a giant peephole. When you think about it, the very act of reading a book, seeing a play or going to a movie is an act of voyeurism. That's the main reason that "Rear Window" is such a work of art... Hitchcock created a movie where people spied on people spying, turned the medium's mirror back on the audience and made them question their own morality.

There's something about movies in particular that really drives this point home, and I'm still not sure what it is. Maybe it's because watching film requires as little work as looking through a peephole. You don't have to imagine. You don't have to think. You don't even have to deal with the fact that the people you are watching are flesh and blood. They're just images on a screen, so go ahead and watch. And if the main character is spending his time watching other people, all the more reason for you to identify with him... and feel less guilty about what you're choosing to do for entertainment.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Web Destroys Thinking

I've heard it reported from friends in different parts of the educational field. From grade school kids to grad school students, when they're asked to do any kind of research paper, they go out and cut copy from half a dozen websites, paste it into a Word doc and turn it in as is.

And this is the thing... they're not doing this because they're lazy. They're not consciously trying to get away with something. They're doing it because they don't understand how to do it any other way.

In other words, the whole concept of, "Go out and do some research, digest it, then form your own opinion based on that research and write about it" makes no sense to people who have grown up with the web. The information is so accessible--so easy to find, grab and paste--that the very concept of original thinking is disappearing.

It makes me wonder--as one of the last American generations to attend college before the dawn of the Internet--how the difficulty of finding information directly relates to the intellect. Because I had to go to a library, locate a bunch of books, read them, maybe photocopy certain pages, and take notes--did this process by its very nature spur my intellect? If I had gone to school as kids do now, and the whole process was exponentially faster and easier, would I have thought less?

Or by thinking this way am I just falling into the typical, "Back in my day..." allure of presumed generational superiority? Do students today gain something by such easy access to information that cancels out what they lose by not being able to synthesize? Is there a trade off? Is this all just a net-zero game where quantity replaces quality? Does my argument logically then mean that if I also had to walk five miles each way to the library and take notes using a hammer and chisel, that I would be even BETTER able to digest, think, synthesize and form opinions?

I don't know. Gotta think about it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Embrace "Elite"


I wish I'd written this myself. But I'll just post Bill Maher's excellent New Rule from a few weeks ago.

And finally, New Rule: Now that liberals have taken back the word, "liberal," they also have to take back the word, "elite." By now, you've heard the constant right-wing attacks on the "elite" media and the liberal "elite," who may or may not be part of the Washington "elite," a subset of the East Coast "elite," which is overly influenced by the Hollywood "elite." So, basically, unless you're a sh*t-kicker from Kansas, you're with the terrorists.

You know, if you played a drinking game where you did a shot every time Rush Limbaugh attacked someone for being elite, you'd almost be as wasted as Rush Limbaugh.

I don't get it. In other fields outside of government, "elite" is a good thing, like an "elite" fighting force; Tiger Woods is an "elite" golfer. If I need brain surgery, I'd like an "elite" doctor. But, in politics, "elite" is bad. The "elite" aren't down to earth and accessible like you and me and President Sh*t-for-brains.

Which is fine, except that whenever there's a Bush Administration scandal, it always traces back to some incompetent political hack appointment, and you think to yourself, where are they getting these screw-ups from? Well, now we know. From Pat Robertson. I'm not kidding.

Take Monica Goodling, who, before she resigned last week, because she's smack in the middle of the U.S. Attorneys scandal, was the third-ranking official in the Justice Department of the United States. She's 33 years old. And though she never even worked as a prosecutor, she was tasked with overseeing the job performance of all 93 U.S. Attorneys.

How do you get to the top that fast? Harvard? Princeton? No, Goodling did her undergraduate work at Messiah College. You know, Messiah, home of the Fighting Christ-ies? And then went on to attend Pat Robertson's law school. Yes, Pat Robertson, the man who said that the presence of gay people at Disney World would cause earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, has a law school.

And what kid wouldn't want to attend? It's three years, and you only have to read one book. U.S. News & World Report, which does the definitive ranking of colleges, lists Regent as a Tier Four school, which is the lowest score it gives. It's not a hard school to get into. You have to renounce Satan and draw a pirate on a matchbook.

This is for people who couldn't get into the University of Phoenix.

Now, would you care to guess how many graduates of this televangelist's diploma mill work in the Bush Administration? 150. And you wonder why things are so messed up. We're talking about a top Justice Department official who went to a college funded by a TV host. Would you send your daughter to Maury Povich U.? And if you did, would you expect her to get a job at the White House?

In 200 years, we've gone from "We, the people," to "Up With People." From "the best and the brightest" to "dumb and dumber." And where better to find people dumb enough to believe in George Bush than Pat Robertson's law school?

The problem here in America isn't that the country is being run by "elites." It's that it's being run by a bunch of hayseeds. And, by the way, the lawyer Monica Goodling just hired to keep her ass out of jail, went to a real law school.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Philosophy & Economics

I've recently become an audiobook nut. I work two blocks from the new Minneapolis Public Library, and it's just too easy to walk over there over lunch, grab an audiobook, maybe copy it to my iPod, and listen to it in the car during my commute.

It's a wonderfully scattered education. My choices are limited by what the library offers, so I can't really carve out a mini degree program. I can just pick whatever interests me at the time I happen to be there. So far I've done Tom Friedman's "The World Is Flat," "Freakonomics," the Ken Burns "History of Jazz," "The Story of Philosophy," "House of Bush, House of Saud," and now, "The Americanization of Ben Franklin."

It's not like I actually retain all or even most of what I hear. Especially when it comes to history, my mind is a sieve. I can't remember dates to save my life. But one of things that's struck me so far is the difference between philosophy and economics, and how my own outlook goes back and forth between the two of them.

My oversimplification is this: Philosophy is the study of how things should be; economics is the study of how things are. Plato thought that the state should be ruled by philosopher kings, and that the system of government should be so powerful that children should be taken from their parents immediately upon birth and made subjects of the state. His reasoning was that this is the only way society can properly assign individuals to their rightful place. It sounds absolutely absurd today. How could anyone be so arrogant as to think that mothers and fathers would hold such a strong intellectual belief in an overriding "system" that they would be willing to sacrifice the emotional attachment to their offspring? Surely, this is proof that societies can't completely ignore how people actually think and behave in setting their rules.

Which brings me to economics. Far from being the study of money, economics--at least the Stephen Leavitt version in "Freakonomics"--is really about studying what works and doesn't work based on studying the hard facts of actual behavior. Thus, we learn that swimming pools are more dangerous to children than guns. Putting more cops on the street really does lower crime. Greater access to abortion inadvertently lowered the U.S. crime rate. Chicago crack gangs had the same corporate structure as McDonald's. And real estate agents are motivated by selling as much as possible as quickly as possible... rather than selling your particular home for the highest price.

But should you really govern people solely based on how they already behave? Isn't this a recipe for stagnation? After all, pure idealism is what produced the most cherished American idea: "All men are created equal." It's that ideal (which we've never actually achieved) that has given credence to everything from women's suffrage to the end of the slave trade. An economist would say that all men are absolutely not created equal. (In fact, Plato would agree with that.) But isn't that ideal worth something? Shouldn't that ideal be the subtext of our laws? Without it, there is a feeling of hopelessness... that human beings can't really get anywhere. And it seems to me that if we are even capable of idealism--of imagining something better than what currently exists--that's a sign (whether from God or evolutionary science, it doesn't matter) that we as a species are supposed to go somewhere.

Either it's a spiritual quest, or a clue from science that we were given high-functioning brains because our survival as a species depends on our ability to think more, to know more, to discover more.

This actually plays into my opinions on which candidate I like most for president, but I'll leave that to another post.

I Can't Take Anderson Cooper Seriously

Seriously, can you take Anderson Cooper seriously? Look at those brooding lips. That far-off gaze that says, "I can see something profound. You cannot, but I can help you." The hands on hips: "What I'm seeing is disturbing. It is not normal. This is called 'news.'" The gray hair: "I am wise beyond my years. I look vaguely ex-military, therefore I am to be trusted." The choice of shirt: "I am in the field. My sleeves are rolled up. I am a working man. I am not the son of a world-famous fashion designer."