Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Internet's Hottest Thing


So you know what's winning the internet right now? Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's quite good. It's got everything you'd want in a Sing-Along Blog, including: Neil Patrick Harris as an aspiring super-villain; ill-tempered horses; extended musical numbers; sporks; copious amounts of frozen yogurt; and much, much more.

It was available for free on the internet for a while, then taken down and sold exclusively on iTunes, and now is back up again. I don't know for how long the freeness will last, so maybe check it out sooner rather than later.

The conception and production of this were cool: creator of Buffy and some similar shows, who also moonlit as a writer for The Office last year, got bored during the writer's strike, and wrote, produced, and filmed this 42 minute film pretty much independently. You can read more about it on wikipedia's entry, but the guy in charge expressed pleasure at being able to free himself of the time- and creative-constraints of the studios.

In short, I like it. And it's my solemn duty as a blogger to link to free things that I like. (Note: The link to the hulu video is the second sentence.)

UPDATE: You know something's big when it's eliciting popular youtube response videos:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

If there's one thing that we as a band want to deal with, it's the issues.


I spent this past shabbat in Denver, sharing the guest spotlight with a rabbi and the about six dudes who comprise the YU Summer Kollel being hosted--for the second consecutive year!--in Denver. One of these dudes gave a shiur which I attended, the main thesis of which was that everyone should listen to rabbis. The visiting rabbi spoke during the prayer service and his main thesis was that everyone should learn the Torah, trust God and love God. I don't object to the concepts of learning the Torah, trusting God, loving God, and listening to rabbis (OK, maybe I object to that last one just a little), but at what point have we created a situation in which no one actually learns the Torah because rabbis are too busy spending all the available Torah-learning time telling everyone to, for example, learn the Torah. We're already there, willing to learn. Teach us something.

It's not just rabbis, though, who behave in this manner. The thing that really bothers me about politics is that the media seems incapable of talking about the important parts of it, i.e., policies and stuff like that. It seems like all political analysis these days is focused on how well each candidate plays the game of politics. Monday's NYT provides a good example, with a front-page headline of "McCain Assails Obama Over Foreign Tour." The focus of the article is about possibly the least important aspect of the 2008 Presidential campaign: what McCain thought of Obama's trip abroad. Of course McCain isn't going to be super-enthusiastic about his rival's foreign policy; he's trying to convince the country (or more like Ohio, Florida and those like three other states that aren't already decided three months--or years--in advance) that the other guy shouldn't be president. This is inherently a non-story which NYT makes into one by placing it on the front page.

Infinite Jest is set in a bunch of different places, but one of the key settings is this halfway house for recovering alcoholics. Numerous AA meetings are recorded, and the whole concept makes me terrified of alcoholism. But these meetings also spend what seems to one of the book's characters an inordinate amount of time convincing the participants to keep coming back for more meetings. This makes sense in the context of AA, which is all about keeping sober for just one day at a time. But in other instances can we all just agree to quit playing around and try dealing for a change with issues of substance?

Announcements


Ever want to be published on the worldwide internet without the (extremely minimal) responsibility that comes along with having your own blog? Well, good news for you, because The Daily Snowman--America's Premier Snowman Monthly--is now accepting guest submissions. That's right, your thoughts now have a public forum, which might be viewed by, on a good day, anywhere from six to nine people. So if you've got something to say, send it my way, to dailysnowman@gmail.com. Remember, leave off the first "the" for savings. And if I think it's good enough, it'll be posted.

Art Controls Your Brain


Oscar Wilde's wonderful essay "The Decay of Lying" takes a really interesting look at the importance and functions of art. It's a short piece, and certainly well worth reading. Wilde understands that art, in its truest sense, occurs in the theater of the mind. My favorite line, oft-selected as my google-message for the world to see, goes a little something like this:
Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.
There are a bunch of different ways to think about this sentence but probably my favorite is the direction Wilde takes later in the essay, as he explains that, sure, the clouds over the Thames in London existed well before the painters started depicting this cloud/river scheme. But this landscape was perceived by people (and remember, Things are because we see them) in a very different way after it was painted. The scene itself had maybe little to do with the paintings, but what people thought about after seeing the paintings was changed possibly forever.

I don't think this is an isolated example. Just today for instance, I was cruising around town with a few Publishing School classmates and someone mentioned that the song playing on the radio (which I can't for the life of me remember what it was) always reminded her of
Animal House. Perhaps even more poignantly, a few minutes later some song called Windy started playing. I had never heard this song before but I immediately recognized it as the basis for Schlock Rock's Rashi song. Schlock Rock's version of the song is so ingrained in my brain that I am unable to hear any other rendition without thinking of Rashi.

There are tons more instances I can think of: I never liked sweet potatoes until I read The Power of One, in which the main character goes into these like long discourses about the delicious steam of a hot sweet potato rising off the plate on a cold day. Infinite Jest is set in this tripartite schematic, one portion of which occurs in junior tennis academy. I'm awful at tennis, but that doesn't keep me from desperately wanting to play every time I walk by the tennis courts on the way to publishing class. There's this car-stereo star near my house called Illusions. Every time I drive by that place I deepen my voice, say the name of the store and add a ", Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money."

These may seem like pretty insubstantial examples, but controlling what I think is pretty damn powerful.

What art has influenced the way you think? (The comments would be an excellent place for this discussion.)

Gettin' Dooced


Unless you are unusually blog-savvy, the title of this post probably doesn't mean what you think it means. According to trusty old urbandictionary.com, the secondary (but way better than the primary) definition of dooced is:
Getting fired because of something that you wrote in your weblog.

"Blogger Heather B. Armstrong coined the phrase in 2002, after she was fired from her Web design job for writing about work and colleagues on her blog, Dooce.com" (Source: Yahoo.com)

Last October, Delta Air Lines flight attendant Ellen Simonetti was fired, she said, for what her supervisor called a misuse of uniform. Simonetti had posted on her personal blog, Queen of Sky (now called Diary of a Fired Flight Attendant), pictures of herself, in her uniform, on an empty plane. Her blog also contained thinly veiled work stories.
One of the first things mentioned during Publishing School's orientation session was that a PS alumni was nearly fired from his job for blogging about the school in a way that was deemed inappropriate. And that is undoubtedly good advice: as long as companies are going to fire employees for their bloggings, it's best to be careful about what you post. But that doesn't mean that such a policy is fair, wise, or unobjectionable.

The doocing case I'm most familiar with went down during April of this year. Christmas Ape, a founding member of the football blog Kissing Suzy Kolber, revealed his true identity when he began being paid for his activities on the blog. Normally, newspapers appreciate accountability. But not here. Christmas Ape, working under the name Michael Tunison, was a local reporter for The Washington Post and was fired within 48 hours of outing himself. A whole bunch of what Ape wrote for KSK wasn't appropriate for publication at WaPo, but, then again, he wasn't writing this material for the Post; he was writing for himself and those who chose to read what he had to say. Businesses obviously reserve the right to fire whomever they want for whatever reason they want, but this case seems a little shortsighted. The struggle of newspapers in the internet era is well documented.



The readership of KSK is a drop in the bucket compared to what WaPo is used to, but it just seems silly to fire a very popular sports blogger who is already working in-house, instead of, you know, giving him his own forum with the paper, maybe attracting a few dozen thousand internet-savvy adult male readers--a group that is increasingly leaving newspapers behind--along the way. But the taint of a blogger was just too much for the paper to handle. But Ape realizes that he is partially to blame here:
Upon sacking, I was told that I brought “discredit to the paper” with my choosing to drink at bars in my free time. Any good journo knows to keep the flask in the desk.
What people do during their free time is their choice. If it doesn't affect their job performance, why does it matter?

Which brings me to another potential doocing case which I admittedly know little about. I know so little about it that I'll repeatedly use words like "allegedly" or "supposedly" and stuff like that. Yeshiva U's newly hired Honors Director is supposedly under some heat for not successfully integrating his department into the general Yeshiva College structure. Allegedly, his hiring practices haven't followed general protocol, failing to gain input from the general faculty of the college. These allegations, if true, sound like serious issues that need to be dealt with. But more recently his alleged blog has been dragged into the discussion. I've perused it , and there doesn't seem to be anything too outlandish on there. Certainly nothing as objectionable as what can be found on KSK. But the point remains the same: if he's doing a good job, then it shouldn't matter what he says on his blog. If he's not doing good things at work, then deal with those relevant issues. Don't drag his blog into this. It has nothing to do with the job he does at work.

Blogs and facebook and who knows what else are going to be around for a while. People are going to express themselves. It's time for employers to get used to it.

UPDATE: Here are a couple links about the YU doocing case:

I Said I Wasn't Going to do This, But It Appears That I am Quite Spineless


I really wasn't planning on sharing my thoughts on that new bat-man flick, but loyal reader josh commented thus on July 24, at 2:51 AM:
Tell us your thoughts about the movie, snowman-man. Best ever?
This site relies on the continued kindness of readers, so I'll try to answer josh's request. As I already mentioned, I don't like movie reviews which tell me what to think about a movie before I see it, so this is your warning about spoilers, sharing my opinion, etc.

So, is The Dark Knight the best ever? Emphatically no. Here's why:
  • I thought that no one besides for that Joker fellow was given enough screen time. I know some pundits are already awarding the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Ledger (which is always foolish to do six months before the year is up; 18 days is also sometimes too early) but they've got it all wrong; Ledger supported nobody. He was the lead actor here, and no one came particularly close. Which is all fine and dandy. The problem here isn't with Ledger taking too much screen-time, it's with the lack of development of anyone else.
  • Rachel Dawes was not a character; she was a plot contrivance designed to make Bruce Wayne sad and Harvey Dent crazy. Also, why is it that she always falls in love with her boss? If Dent's the new guy in town, how long have they even known each other before he proposes? But, again, it doesn't matter, because Rachel isn't real--she just moves the plot along.
  • The director, Nolan, does too much telling and not enough showing. For example, the Joker overcomes that cop who has lost six friends in the interrogation room. I think that'd have been pretty cool to see how he did that. But it all happens off-screen. All we see is the Joker holding a jagged piece of glass to the poor guy's throat. How did that happen? Also for example, the kidnapping of Dent and Rachel was kinda a big deal in the plot. That is the type of thing that the viewer needs to see, instead of just being told about it afterwards through dialogue. I hate to say it, but telling a story through dialogue is a pretty lazy way to go about making a movie. This isn't radio. Show us what happened, please. I think Nolan made that decision because he wanted to preserve the surprise of who betrayed Dent and Rachel. But the price wasn't worth maintaining this very mild suspense.
  • I didn't for a second believe that Lucius Fox, so principled that he would resign his post if B. Wayne kept the wiretapping technology, would use this weaponry "Just this once." Having developed characters agree to do something abhorrent to them just this once in order to move the plot along undermines that character. It's bad storytelling.
  • One of the saddest parts for me--because it overshadowed the bat-man impersonators, one of the cooler parts of the movie--was that the Scarecrow showed up pretty much out of leftfield in that parking garage scene. What was he doing there? I think he shows up again later as one of the Joker's henchmen. Wasn't he in prison or an asylum or something? This was just confusing.
That said, I loved a whole bunch of aspects of this movie, including:
  • As I mentioned before, I thought the bat-man impersonators were really cool. This is a superhero movie which was conscious of the hero's effect on the city at large. These movies too often rely on the cliches of showing newspaper headlines or some type of like serious CNN debate whether the bat-man is good or bad. The Dark Knight had plenty of that also, but it also managed to go beyond these cliches, and show how the average citizen may have reacted to all these big events going on in their city. In general, Nolan did a good job of utilizing the media, particularly when the Joker called in his hospital threat to that cable news show.
  • Ledger was pretty much awesome.
  • I thought the wiretapping/sonar debate was timely and well done (except for Fox's decision, of course).
  • I loved the idea of learning less about the Joker and his backstory the more he told us about those things. It certainly interrogates something or other.
  • This movie went beyond the superhero norm by the positioning of bat-man as the hero the city needs, even if it means taking the blame for all those deaths. This goes hand-in-hand with the nice contrast between Dent as the public, legitimate (white) hero and bat-man as the private, faceless (dark) hero. The limitations of bat-man's ability to change Gotham were particularly satisfying.
Overall, really solid movie that did a whole bunch of things right. However, there was just enough that I didn't like that prevents me from labeling this the best ever.

Final Grade: 4.7/5

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fastest Post Ever, Lacking, For One, Proofreading


My ride is picking me up in like a minute, but to keep you entertained over the weekend you can look at these mismatched movie soundtracks and a collection of pictures of Stephen Hawking made of Lego. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This is slightly annoying


Blogger apparently publishes posts in the order they were created/edited and not in the order they were, you know, published. Which would explain why my newest post is located below the second newest one. Here's a link for those of you too lazy to scroll down. But just think of this as a bonus post. Two in one day is most probably a record for me. A record not likely to be equaled anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Publishing School and the Bat-Man Experience


In some ways publishing school is very different than the normal type of school. I've met, for example, more NYT bestselling authors (=two) in the last ten days than I have in the previous 23 or so years of my life (=0). But in other, more different ways, publishing school is pretty much the same as regular school. We get homework, our teachers give us grades, we eat in a cafeteria and complain about the food (Plain vegetables from the salad bar again? Keeping Kosher rocks.), and the ratio of females to males is 8.6:1. But, most importantly, we love field trips. Box factory it wasn't, but the publishing factory (or, company) was pretty OK. They even gave us a flimsy folder and a free book. Publishing school: like regular school, except with way more copy-editing.

I went last night to see that new moving picture about the bat-man. I'm not going to share my thoughts on the film itself because there are plenty of people way smarter than I writing about movies on the internet. But I do want to relay some thoughts about the film-viewing experience. It was pretty much unlike any other film-viewing experience I've ever experienced. On Sunday, I ordered a ticket to the Tuesday night, 1900h showing at the local i-maximum theater. By the time I emailed out to the publishing school listserv to invite some fellow publishing students to join me, the show was sold out. So I went by my lonesome. (Not the first time I've gone to a movie theater by myself, by the way; it's not too bad.) I didn't really know where I was going (Did you know that maps.google.com now gives directions via public transport? Take that hopstop!), so I left early and arrived early. By the time I showed up at 1820h, there were around 100 people--who had already purchased tickets--waiting on line inside the theater. Around five minutes later, the theater workers finished sweeping up from the previous show, the doors were dramatically thrown open, and all ~100 people scrambled in to find good seats. I've never been to a movie where all the good seats were taken a full half of an hour before the previews even started. (I managed to get a good seat.) The crowd was pretty much engrossed in the film while it was showing (i-maximum makes it hard not to be completely engrossed; take that, peripheral vision!). The audience erupted into applause as the movie finished (not so surprising, especially for your blogger, a veteran of the AMC Theater in West Orange), but I was surprised by some of the more intimate post-viewing reactions. I saw a bunch of couples--young and old--kinda hugging and kissing, as if they just experienced a seminal moment in their relationship. I got the sense that people viewed this viewing as some sort of important historic event. It may have been. I just think that it's pretty interesting that people reacted like that.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Just when I thought I said something in an effective manner, I notice that The Onion said a better thing way more effectively.

From July 15:

Going To Tops Of Things Still Favored By Nation's Tourists

NEW YORK—According to a report released Monday by the American Tourism Society, going to the tops of things is still the preferred activity among the nation's tourists. "Although driving past things and swimming in things have both grown in popularity over the last decade, going to the tops of things still surpasses both by nearly 30 percent," said ATS president Kimberly Davis, who was careful to point out that the photographing of things was not included in the report, since the near constant occurrence of this activity makes its frequency impossible to calculate. "In 2008, tourists remained committed to standing in long lines at the bottoms of things, paying upwards of $20 to gain access to the tops of those things, and then staring at other smaller, more distant things for a few minutes before descending, often to have funny pictures of themselves drawn incorporating the things in the background." Davis added that, perhaps as a consequence of the declining economy, the purchasing of miniature representations of the things that tourists enjoy going to the tops of has dropped by 14 percent.


I have nothing to add. Well played, The Onion.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Summer of Firsts


I've done many a thing this summer which I had not previously--in my life--done. For example, this summer I, for the first time,...
  • did laundry by myself,
  • ate foie gras,
  • slept in a waterbed (my verdict: kinda cool because you can sorta rock yourself to sleep by just moving around a little, but, ultimately, waterbeds are only a sometimes bed because you can't sit up on [in?] them, they're mad hard to get out of, and I woke up with a sore back; but it was fun to try, even if I kept worrying that the thing would pop, because that seems to be the thing that happens to waterbeds on TV),
  • stepped foot in the part of this country between Cleveland and California (I think the technical title of this is the mid-coast),
  • drank absinthe, twice, and I didn't hate it the second time,
  • attended a non-Jewish institution of higher learning, and I'm not sure what took me so long,
  • prayed with old Sefardi-type men in Spain,
  • visited Europe (that time like ten years ago I spent two hours in the airport in London doesn't even come close to counting),
  • saw a bull-fight (and that was, I can guarantee, the last time I'll see a bull-fight),
  • did pilates,
  • saw a popular moving picture on an i-maximum screen,
  • um, rode in a hybrid car.
There's probably more, but I think we're way past the still-interesting line.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Turning the Tables on Tourists


It must have been the morning of July 3, in the small city of Granada, when I was walking around the El-Hambra, this really pretty 14th C. royal city sitting on a hill. It's pretty much the only tourist attraction in Granada. Every guide book we came across mentioned the local phrase, "If you haven't seen El-Hambra, you haven't lived."

I learned a very important lesson that day: Just because some tour books insist that you go see something, and just because the local population will question the very terms of your existence if you don't visit this thing, doesn't mean that you should feel compelled to visit the in question thing.

Because I have a secret: El-Hambra is boring.

Sure it's pretty, but, after a certain point (which point, I suppose, came after two weeks in Europe, spent looking at museums and things built by kings), pretty architecture isn't all that interesting. Ooh, look! Another fountain! And, oh, over there, another fountain! I never would have expected that this courtyard would also have a fountain!

After a couple of hours walking around, trying to force myself into being interested in like these carvings they have in every door frame, I just stopped pretending. This place was boring and I knew it. We didn't have a tour guide, and we didn't have those little audio guides. I was just looking at stuff I didn't understand. And, as we all know, looking at stuff you don't understand just isn't all that interesting, e.g., Magic Eye books. I always hated those things. They just made me dizzy, and I could never see that stupid clown who was supposedly lurking in the background. El-Hambra didn't make me dizzy, but I also didn't see any clowns walking around there.

Now that I was no longer distracted by all the architecture, I could afford to think a little bit about what was going on around me. All these tourists were just walking around, taking pictures of everything and anything. But these pictures weren't of anything interesting. They were just taking pictures because, by gum, that's just what you did on vacation while visiting a tourist attraction. And I thought to myself, I thought:

If these tourists can take pictures of boring things, what's to stop me from taking pictures of them taking pictures of boring things? There might not be anything interesting about my pictures, but at least they'd be meta-.

I decided that the next time I find myself with time to kill--let's say maybe starting in mid-August if I'm unemployed--I'd go around to different tourist sites around New York, taking pictures of those picture-taking tourists. I would spin this off into its own blog, get linked to by all the important blogs, and make a few bucks on the royalty advance from the inevitable book deal. But, not surprisingly, the interwebs were way out in front of me. Like so, and like so.

I'm not entirely satisfied with any of these existing efforts, so maybe there is still time for me to work on this project. But for now, I'll post a wonderful piece of writing excerpted from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise.

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"
Maybe one day I'll take pictures of taking pictures.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thank goodness I still live in a world with telephones, car batteries, handguns [*bang*!] and many things made of zinc.


There's this extremely nerdy website which presents what most probably is the world's first interactive Periodic Table of the Elements. By clicking on any of the little element boxes, the interwebular traveler is escorted on a journey to an educational video explaining that element. Sodium, not surprisingly, is the most watched video. The internet has spoken, declaring sodium to be the most popular element.

I suppose this is a worthwhile educational tool, for those poor high schoolers forced to "learn" chemistry, but I can't figure out why they don't have a video ready for Zinc. There's tons of good zinc videos out there, ready to be linked to, like so:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Metropolis Notes


  • The Paris Metro system has a helpful monitor in almost every station letting the Metro-rider know when the next two trains will arrive.
  • The Madrid Metro system has a helpful monitor in every station letting the Metro-rider know when the next train will arrive.
  • The Barcelona Metro system has a helpful monitor--which even counts seconds, although this measure is often inaccurate--in every station letting the Metro-rider know when the next train will arrive.
  • Each bus (!) stop in both Seville and Granada has a helpful monitor letting the bus-rider know when the next bus will arrive.
  • Madrid and Barcelona are the only two cities I've seen which have flat, stretch-out-upon benches in their Metro stations. Most cities avoid this so that people don't sleep on these benches. During my three days in each of Madrid and Barcelona I didn't see anyone sleeping on these relatively comfortable Metro benches, but I did see many people sleeping on benches in the parks of Madrid. (But it was during Siesta time, so maybe it is acceptable for businessmen, doctors, etc., to sleep on benches in the park during this part of the day. Siesta still confuses me.)
  • All the parks in Paris have these green metal chairs, which come in two varieties: 1) normal sitting chairs and 2) normal sitting chairs which are slightly reclined. The cool part about these chairs is that they are not bolted to the ground. Pedestrians are allowed to pick up these chairs and move them about. On a warm end-of-June morning in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the park was fairly crowded, but there were plenty of available chairs. New York City has one or two such parks, including the awesome looking and as yet unvisited by me Paley Park.
  • According to P. Geyh:
  • Defined by originator David Belle as “an art to help you pass any obstacle”, the practice of “parkour” or “free running” constitutes both a mode of movement and a new way of interacting with the urban environment. Parkour was created by Belle (partly in collaboration with his childhood friend S├ębastien Foucan) in France in the late 1980s. As seen in the following short video “Rush Hour”, a trailer for BBC One featuring Belle, parkour practitioners (known as “traceurs”), leap, spring, and vault from objects in the urban milieu that are intended to limit movement (walls, curbs, railings, fences) or that unintentionally hamper passage (lampposts, street signs, benches) through the space.
  • I don't know if it would be fair to say that Parkour could only have been conceived of in a place like France--and not, for instance, in New York--because of the presence of several hundred unmoored chairs in Paris's parks, but I'm fairly confident that the ability to personalize (to, in a way, overcome) the urban environement didn't hurt Mr. Belle in this regard.

Weird Childhood Histories, Part 1


My current height of five-ten-ish almost exactly matches my height from 1999 (and every year in between then and now), when I was 14. Doing all my vertical growing in this short time period gave me a real edge on the basketball court, where I took advantage of those short, unbearded boys. It's no coincidence that the absolute prime of my athletic career stretched over the summers of '99-'00, before all those little boys somehow outgrew me. Around 10th grade, I found myself stuck in the unenviable position of being an undersized power forward in the ultra-competitive Yeshiva League. I attribute the moderate functionality which defined my high school basketball career to the length of my arms. They're longer than they, by rights, should be. It's generally assumed that your height (in inches) should equal your wingspan (also in inches). I would be willing to wager an ice cream that my wingspan is greater than the 70 or so inches of my height. I would tell you a more precise measurement if I wasn't now in Denver, lacking a tape-measure and any acquaintance of more than three days (that would be a fun ice-breaker: Hi, nice to meet you. Want to measure my arms?).

In my elementary school we had these annoying little annual government mandated fitness tests, where we had to do things like run a mile in less than eight minutes or do as many pull-ups as we could before our arms fell off. My favorite--by far--was the flexibility test. We had to sit down on the floor of the gym, spread our legs out to the sides in a vaguely V shape, and reach forward as far as possible. You were given a score measuring how far your fingers reached past your feet. Some of my friends couldn't reach all the way to their feet, for which they earned a score of like -2 inches, leading me to make fun of their negative flexibility. There were some girls, obviously, who were actually flexible, did full-fledged splits, and turned in a good reach. I liked this test the best because it was the only one I ever actually passed. I was just as inflexible as all the rest of the boys--probably even more so, in terms of real-life flexibility--but, thanks to my arms, I was able to consistently attain scores in the +3 to +6 range.

The Coors Fitness Center of the University of Denver offers classes in such fields as: Core-Ruption, Ab Blast, Power Sculpt, Kick Boxing, and Vinyasa Yoga (I'm not sure why, but I get the sense that all that training Batman does with Ras Al Ghoul in the snowy mountains was some form of Vinyasa Yoga). I'm not going to try any of those classes because they would probably kill me. But I did attend yesterday morning (at 0730h) a class entitled Intro To Yoga (every initial letter of every word in every class title is capitalized in the Summer 2008 Coors Fitness Center Schedule). It turned out that this class was taught by a sub. The class behaved pretty OK, but the instructor was more of a pilates person, so we ended doing that (not that I would have realized the difference). No one there was fooled by the length of my arms. Even the old guy on the far left side of the studio was way more flexible than I. I haven't been this sore in awkward muscles since trapeze school.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Yet Another Post Which Mentions Laugh Tracks


Here is a partial list of things which I don't like because they tell me how to think about and react to any number of various experiences, events, or feelings.

  • Travel books.
  • Reading movie reviews before seeing the movie. (They're really fun to read afterwards, to compare your tastes to those of the columnist. I picked this up from Chuck Klosterman, but I don't remember where he wrote it.)
  • Going to Poland to see concentration camps.
  • Scoreboards at basketball/baseball games that tell the fans to make noise.
  • Yeshivot.
  • Laugh tracks.
  • That certain type of rabbi who devotes his life to telling young adults how to think about and react to any number of various experiences, events, or feelings.
  • Advertisements.
On second thought, I don't dislike advertisements. I think they're interesting/amusing. Interesting/amusing so long as you realize what they're out to accomplish. I suppose the same could be applied to the rabbi category also.

Update: Vonnegut knows it's all about respecting the reader.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Laugh Tracks, Lazy Writing, and Respecting the Audience


My 17 day excursion to Europe was marked by the usual lacks. Clean clothing. Internet. Kosher food. To that list I wish to add: quality reading. I was limited to one issue of New York Magazine purchased in Newark Airport (I was curious what it's got that so tempted Leitch), a copy of The Elements of Style, and, as part of a homework assignment for publishing school, a manuscript of a book by some dude named Jonathan Green, titled K Blows Top, detailing Khrushchev's various visits to the US. These pickings seemed especially slim because Ryanair's luggage-weight restrictions convinced me to leave DFW's Infinite Jest at home, even though I was 276 pages in (only 705 to go! Not including endnotes.) upon departure.

Back in the States, I've been carrying IJ with me pretty much everywhere. A friend asked me--probably upon some unsolicited singing of the book's praise on my part--why I liked this book so much, and I repeated something that Dave Eggers mentioned in the foreword to the tenth anniversary edition, that the book is over 1,000 pages long, and there is not one lazy sentence. Then some nine-year old came over and started crying about something, so I didn't get a chance to elaborate on why I would like a book just because there are no lazy sentences. And, thinking about it now, it's not so much that each sentence says what it wants to say in an interesting/non-cliche/unlazy way, but that the book is tight. In the 276 pages that I've read so far, there aren't wasted sentences. Each chapter and paragraph and sentence adds something. IJ is--if such a thing is possible in a phonebook sized novel--concise. It's free of redundancies. This is accomplished, I believe, because DFW respects the reader. Not everything is immediately obvious, but the reader who pays attention will make connections, notice trends, and, eventually, figure out what the hell is meant by all those obscure and invented acronyms. The experimentation that is pulled off here just wouldn't be possible if the author felt compelled to perform the literary equivalent of ruining a joke by explaining how and why it's funny.

It's for this reason that I stopped watching TV which doesn't respect me enough to allow me to decide if something is funny. It's not just that the laugh track on shows is insulting/distracting; it's also that these shows are written for the laugh track, instead of for the audience. I'll let this guy explain, in a post helpfully titled "Laugh Tracks Suck":
Writers avoid surprising or challenging the live audience, because if they're not following along, then the laugh track suffers. So they stick to tired, conventional setups and interchangeable jokes along the same lines (setup/punch line, pratfall, sight gag) we've seen a million times.
I think this problem extends beyond TV, though. There's writing which feels like it's written with a laugh track. The joke is made so obvious that it seems like the author thinks that letting the reader know that that last line was supposed to be funny becomes more important that actually just writing something creatively funny: Oh, that was a joke: I better laugh now. Rick Reilly here comes to mind.

On the other hand, I never get the sense that David Foster Wallace writes with a laugh track.

This is the part of the post where I start wondering about the effect of the author's audience. I don't think it's a coincidence that Leitch, one of the writers who most consistently respects his readers, has repeatedly made clear how he writes for himself and those people who choose to read his work. He's not trying to please everyone, because he knows that's not possible, and--even if it was--it wouldn't be any fun. But maybe even more importantly, the format he uses allows for immediate feedback and criticism. If he writes a post that's meandering and repetitive and boring, he's going to hear about it from a demanding set of readers and commenters. The writing isn't lazy because it can't afford to be. Leitch needs to respect his readers because they'll give him hell if he doesn't.

These last few paragraphs may have been a little bit vague, so let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. (If I realize that the last few paragraphs aren't the clearest they could possibly be, is it laziness that causes me to acknowledge vagueness without, you know, revising and rewriting? Perhaps. But this is just a blog that no one reads. It's probably supposed to be a little lazy.) Last week I saw Will Smith's new movie, Hancock. There are two aspects of this movie which immediately struck me as lazy. The first half of the movie is this repetitive stream of one joke: Hancock is a superhero, but he's mean to people. The director thought it necessary to devote about eight different scenes to hammering home this one point. Hey look, Hancock is being mean to that kid. Ooh, now he's damaging public property. And now he's mean to this other kid. Once this basic premise is established (which happens within like the first eight minutes of the film) the rest of the first half of the movie doesn't add anything. It detracts. These scenes are nothing more than filler in a movie which, even with these scenes included, clocks in at only 92 minutes. This, to me, represents a lack of respect for the audience. Director Peter Berg apparently never considered the possibility that the audience would either notice or care that the first half of the movie is just one gag, played over again without innovation or development.

Once the director (finally) tires of this prank, the film shifts gears and begins focusing on Hancock and his search for his own identity. This is all well and good, but the film never bothers to answer any of the questions it raises. The brief explanations of this superhero's background are beyond vague: he is a god or an angel. That's it. No elaboration is provided, because, for some reason, Berg couldn't imagine that his audience would be interested in learning about this character that maybe he, the director, would have good reason for the audience to care about . More important to him is the climatic fight scene. The film just flat out ignores any story which it could possibly tell. Which is misguided, because the best part about superhero movies is the creation of the hero's universe. I want to know origin stories, history, and secret weaknesses. I don't need a superhero movie that's only one long string of action sequences. We already have Rambo for that.

That's not to say that no information can be withheld. DFW does that all over the place in IJ (for example, with the nature of the book's eponymous film). But he always does it to arrange suspense and an eventual revelation. Hancock somehow ends without filling in any of the obvious lacunae. Are they waiting for a sequel to explain the first movie? I, for one, will pass on the inevitable sequel. You, Mr. Berg, already had a chance to explain yourself, your movie, and your title character, and you decided that I wouldn't be interested.