Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Beatles in 3126

A while back, we had some fun here examining the limits of pop culture in a post titled The Limits of Pop Culture. The impetus for that post was an anecdote concerning high school seniors (people born, roughly, in the early 1990s) who did not recognize the source of the words "Baby you can drive my car." If it took only 45 years for the Beatles to be somewhat forgotten, we wondered, what would happen in 1045 years?

Thanks to this impressive find, we no longer have to wonder.

[via Kottke]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Paragraph of the Week

From Roger Ebert's blog post, Goodbye to All That:
I realize so clearly now that conversations are all about the flow, the timing, the music. Now that IBM's Big Blue has beaten a grandmaster at chess and promises to win at Jeopardy, I have a challenge that will grind it to a halt: I challenge Big Blue to tell a joke in a voice that has the tone and the timing, the words and the music, just right.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Review of Sequitur: David Foster Wallace

The only thing I knew about Sequitur: David Foster Wallace before actually attending the performance of it last night at New York's Symphony Space was that it was some type of musical interpretation of some of the writings of David Foster Wallace. So here, in brief, is what this performance was: the reading of two short stories written by DFW accompanied by live music and, in one case, a complementary visual component.

First up was Everything is Green, based on the short story of the same name that is collected in Girl with Curious Hair. This performance was fairly straightforward, featuring a recorded reading of, to the best of my knowledge, the complete text of the story supplemented by the piano and what I'm pretty sure was a flute. The program guide states that the composer of the piece, Randall Woolf, was fascinated by the "outsider English" in which the story is written and that the music was meant to complement this argot.

By far the longer and more interesting portion of the evening was the night's second performance, Tri-Stan, based on the short story Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko, collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Mary Nessinger was the highlight of this show, as she brilliantly sang selections from the source text, nicely matching her performance to the tone of the written word, cleverly coalescing instances of heightened drama with winking asides to the audience. The music had a fuller sound, as a full ten musicians huddled on the crowded stage along with Nessinger and the conductor, Paul Hostetter. A nice sized screen positioned above the performers' heads was used to project a range of images, from the text being read by Nessinger to publicity shots of the various real-life sitcoms mentioned in the story and, even, shadowed images of gyrating co-eds during certain relevant points.

I'll be honest: I'm fretfully unfit to judge the musical merits of each piece. My ear isn't refined enough to fairly do that. I much preferred the second presentation, though, precisely because of its non-strictly musical elements. For one, the difference between a live and a recorded reading of the source texts is just huge. The projected images helped me follow the action, as it was simply hard to hear, at times, the readings above the musical accompaniment. But, most important, Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko--a mythical retelling of the tragedy of TV executive working before and during the rise of cable--is perfectly suited for this type of musical performance. Where the music distracted at times from Everything is GreenTri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko, in all its mock-epic glory, was enhanced by the   live reading and the images and the music.

All in all, these are two creative interpretations of two perhaps lesser-known DFW stories. I feel that I better appreciate the stories after seeing them performed, which, for me, was much the point of the evening. Also, I learned that, apparently, I'll attend anything that has the name David Foster Wallace in the title.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

McBain's Action Movie

Making the internet rounds this morning is a video some have called an Easter Egg from the early years of The Simpsons. Remember McBain, the Schwarzenegger caricature? Some have claimed that the short snippets of his movies depicted in the show--watched by various members of the Simpson family--are all part of a larger McBain action movie in which the hero hunts down a corrupt senator and avenges his partner's death.

Problem is, these scenes aren't portrayed in chronological order. For example, the closing scene of this purported action movie below is actually from McBain's second-ever appearance, in the season 2 episode "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" This changes this compilation from an extremely clever hidden in-joke told by multiple generations of The Simpsons writers to just a slick editing job by the fine folks at College Humor.

Video is still worth watching, though.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Bob and his Burgers

I don't quite understand TV's insistence on saving all new episodes of virtually all new shows for certain months of the year. If even a few new episodes of decent shows were broadcast in, say, July or December, there's a good chance I would watch them instead of what I usually watch during television's calendric dead spots, namely, old episodes of The Simpsons (seasons 1-9 only). The last week of January, though, is a good time for TV watching. Just about everything is new.

The last two weeks have witnessed the airing of at least one new episode of, by my count, seven shows that I like watching, ranging from loyalty projects (The Simpsons, now in season 22) to programs that I find legitimately entertaining and funny (Parks and Rec). But the program I have most looked forward to watching over this time is Bob's Burgers, which the great Alan Sepinwall has called "a demented, funny little show."

The writing is good and funny, but the show shines most brightly because of its cast. H. Jon Benjamin has maybe the best voice in the world, one that is somehow perfectly suited for roles as diverse as a spy and a sad-sack burger joint owner. Best of all, though, is Kristen Schaal. I've had a crush on her for a while now, but I've laughed more at her Louise, a precocious middle-schooler who always wears a pink rabbit hat, in three episodes than I did at FotC's Mel in two seasons. Mostly because she's allowed to yell a lot. (Schaal is a hilarious yeller.) The Louise character lies with no regard for who may be harmed by her tall tales and is savvy enough to realize that Foot Feta-ish is a better name for a cheese-topped burger than Never Been Feta. And yet she's also a kid who sometimes just likes to draw with crayons. The balance is something fun to watch.

The aired episodes are available on Hulu, but I'm also embedding here a 12-minute interview (NSFW language) with Schaal, Eugene Mirman, and John Roberts in which the three cast members ignore completely the poor interviewer's questions. This might be why the show is so much fun: these people may actually be crazy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The NFL's Relationship with Rules

NFL rules dictate that overtime games will be decided by way of the sudden death system. This means that the first team to score wins the game. Whether by touchdown, field goal or safety--how cool would it be for an overtime game to end via safety?--the game automatically ends when the first points are scored. This system has raised serious questions of fairness from a host of critics. And these critics have a point. According to research done by Advanced NFL Stats, from 2000 to 2007, the team to win the overtime coin toss has won the game 60% of the time. Games are designed to measure talent, some combination of skill and effort. The better team should win most of the time. Why should a simple coin toss--the very definition of randomness--determine to such an extent the winner of a football game?

With these questions in mind, the NFL has decided to change the overtime rules for the playoffs. Thanks to Jason Kirk of SB Nation Atlanta for this quick summary of the changes:

The rules are designed to prevent the team winning the coin flip from getting a couple decent plays and kicking a field goal without the other team having a chance at the ball. The new rules:
  • Each team gets to receive a kickoff at least once, unless the team receiving the ball first gets a touchdown on its first drive. A touchdown ends it.
  • If the team that gets ball first scores a field goal, the other team gets to receive a kickoff. A touchdown on that drive ends it.
  • Once each team has received one kickoff, the next score wins, whether it's a field goal, touchdown, or what have you.
  • If the game is tied after 15 minutes, another period will begin, with the next score ending the game.

We're now one weekend--four games of varying excitement levels--into the 2011 NFL Playoffs. There has not, as of yet, been a game that required extra time to decide a winner. This in itself is not surprising: over the last five years, only six out of the fifty-five playoff contents went to overtime. Consequences are magnified in the playoffs, though. The staging of even one overtime playoff game a year means that the standard sixty minutes of football proved insufficient to determine a winner between two really good teams. A slight change in the basic rules of play may have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of an entire season. In 2007, the Chicago Bears defeated the Seahawks in overtime. The Bears progressed all the way to the Super Bowl. The next year, The New York Giants prevailed over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Thanks in part to the stickiest helmet in the world, the Giants won the Super Bowl. And last year, the New Orleans Saints needed overtime to defeat the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game before going on to defeat the Colts in the Super Bowl. Besides for the obvious lesson--Brett Favre sure does throw a bunch of interceptions in NFC Championship Games--it's important to realize that overtime has determined a Super Bowl participant in three out of the last four years.

I'm not saying that the playoff overtime rule is fairer than the regular season rule. I think there are issues with both systems. I just find it fascinating that the NFL would innovate in the very rules and strategy of the game but would limit such innovation to the playoffs. If the playoff rule is better, why not use this system for the regular season? If the regular-season rule is better, why bother changing it for the playoffs? Moreover, why would the NFL institute this change without testing it? (For a good example of a sport testing out its rules, see the NHL.)

Yahoo's Chris Chase describes the problem nicely, focusing on the potential benefits of the team that wins the toss deciding to kick off in order to know at the start of the possession which type of score is needed:
How would a team even know whether deferring is a good idea? It's not like any coach has ever been in a game situation involving these rules. Like or hate the new overtime rules, the fact that they're getting its trial run during the playoffs is insane. Whenever the rule comes into play, it will be the first time any NFL coach has ever dealt with it. What better time to test something out than in the biggest stage in the sport? Roger Goodell thinks ending a Super Bowl with a field goal on the first possession is bad? How about ending a Super Bowl with a new rule that nobody in football has ever had to deal with before? 

Let's take a step back and think about this for a minute: A new format that fundamentally changes the game is being instituted before the playoffs without any testing. Only the NFL could get away with that. Can you imagine if Bud Selig tried to do this in baseball. Maybe before the playoffs he issued a decree that a team has to win by two runs in extra innings. He'd be mocked in every sports column and on every sports station in America. The NFL does it and nobody bats an eyelid. Flippantly changing a rule that's been in use for 40 years and giving it no trial period? Sure, why not! 
I think the comparison to baseball is a helpful one. Chase is correct in anticipating the outrage a similar rule change in baseball would elicit. But more interesting are the two sports' relationships with rules and officiating in general. Baseball's rules are very clear. The runner is safe if he touches the base before the baseball touches him. The ball is foul if it lands on this side of a white line and its fair if it lands on the other side (or, on the line itself). Baseball officiating is, consequently, very clear as well. The umpire's job is to determine the facts of the play. Umpires are positioned around the field of play in order to observe as best they can what happened.

Compare this to football. Football referees are tasked with both observing the events on the field and interpreting the meaning of these events. Here, for example, is the key line in the NFL's pass interference guideline:

It is pass interference by either team when any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player of such player’s opportunity to catch the ball.

What does it mean to significantly hinder the progress of a football player? Further complicating matters is the stipulation that the rule only applies when there is "[c]ontact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch." How can a referee know with any degree of certainty when the defender is playing the ball or not playing the ball? And, of course, there's the old discussion on what constitutes a football move.

It is the need for such interpretation that inspired Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated's wonderful sports media analyst, to name Mike Pereira the Sports Media Person of the Year. Pereira is the former NFL Vice President of Officiating who now works for FOX, offering commentary on the officials. Here's Deitsch explaining his pick:

Revolutions in sports television sometimes come with little fanfare. Fox initially thought Pereira, the former vice president of officiating for the NFL, would make his biggest impact on the web. But the opening week of the NFL season featured one of the more controversial plays of the year -- Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson's apparent game-winning catch against the Bears, and Pereira's insight on the play proved invaluable. "Most people thought it was a touchdown but when they came out of replay, I predicted they would leave it as an incomplete pass and they did," said Pereira, who works out of Fox's NFL studios in Los Angeles. "That play generated more talk than I could have imagined and I think Fox recognized the value of addressing this immediately on television."

Viewers have longed for broadcasters to provide accurate explanations from the NFL's byzantine rule book, and Pereira, thankfully, has taken the burden off ex-jocks and announcers, who can come off as befuddled as fans. He has correctly predicted the outcome of 49 of 50 replay challenges this season (he disagreed with the judgment of the refs on a Jeremy Maclin reception that was ruled a catch and fumble; Pereira predicted the refs would overturn a play to an incomplete pass), but more importantly, he has imbued viewers with added knowledge.

Can you imagine such a prominent role for a former umpire on FOX's baseball telecast? What would he even say?

Rules changes are nothing new in the NFL. After all, the NFL has changed its sport more than any other governing body. There has never been a rule change more drastic or influential than the NFL's decision to allow the forward pass. For the NFL, changing a major rule just in time for the playoffs is just par for the course.