Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wanted: A New David/Dave

The past 12 months have been rough at times. I think that's what happens when your first foray into adult life coincides with a bad economy. But more than that, I've been missing my David/Dave. From the age of 12, I've always had a celebrity David/Dave to entertain, enlighten, and edutain me. I started off with Dave Barry, reading books and books along with as many archived columns as the internet could hold. Soon after, I transitioned to David Sedaris. This was nice, because he was actually producing new material at the time I was reading him. There was even a brief time when two of David Cross's stand-up albums were basically played on repeat in my apartment (check out maybe Cross's best known bit at the 7:20 mark of this youtube video with plenty of cussin'.) Soon after, I discovered David Foster Wallace. And just when I had finished reading eulogies of DFW, I started watching The Wire, created by David Simon. But I finished The Wire in the early portion of 2009, and I've been Dave-less ever since, the first time since the late '90s that my favorite artist in the world hasn't been named David.

I'm looking for a new David/Dave.

I've done some light research using the internet. By this I mean, I typed the words "Dave" and "David" into Amazon's search engine, and I let the mildly creepy auto-complete function fill in the rest of my search. Leaving out redundancies (e.g., Dave Matthews Band and Dave Matthews) this is what it came up with:
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Dave Ramsey
  • Dave Eggers
  • Dave Chappelle
  • Dave Brubeck
  • David Gray
  • David Guetta
  • David Bowie
  • David Sedaris
  • David Cross
  • David Archuleta
  • David Foster Wallace
  • David Crowder Band
  • David Baldacci
  • David Cook
Musicians are out because I don't like/understand music quite enough to obsessively follow any of them. Though I do kinda like David Bowie. That eliminates most of this list, and almost all of the Davids/Daves that I hadn't heard of before tonight. Dave Ramsey is some sort of financial writer, who has authored some works as The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan For Financial Fitness. David Baldacci writes crappy mass market novels. I've seen enough of Dave Chappelle's work to be impressed, but I'm happy to leave it at that.

Which leaves us with Dave Eggers. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is one of the best things I've ever read. But What is the What is the first book I can remember that led me to consciously decide to stop reading. (How We Are Hungry was pretty good.) But can a pantheon David/Dave member be responsible for a What is the What level misstep? I've heard good things about You Shall Know Our Velocity, so maybe that will be Eggers's last chance to achieve official David/Dave status.

The only David that I know of who may fit the bill is David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. I think I'm going to give him a shot, but if you know of any good Davids/Daves that are out there, please let me know. It's not easy being Dave-less.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chabad Throws The Best Telethons

Chabad sure knows how to party. And fundraise. And publicize itself.

The organization managed to involve--and I'm not sure you could come up with an odder pairing--both Ron Artest and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in its most recent telethon.

First, Artest. A philanthropist agreed to donate $1000 for every free throw completed in the span of one minute. So Ron Artest agreed to show up to a TV studio at 6:50 AM. He made 29 free throws and behaved himself.
"[Artest] grew up in Queens, so seeing a yarmulke or a Rabbi with a black hat wasn't National Geographic for him," Marcus told me. In all, and in contrast to his fierce on-court rep and off-court rap sheet, Artest was, Marcus says, "absolutely super menschy."
And here's Triumph:

The whole thing reminds me of this picture of Wilson Chandler and a Rabbi Grossman, which originally appeared here on this blog.

I am endlessly fascinated by interactions between NBA players and rabbis.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Google Throughout The Ages

For such a simplistic site, the Google main search page has gone through a fair number of changes since its launch in November 1998. Did anyone reading this remember that the wordmark above the search-box originally had an exclamation point appended to the end? I certainly didn't. To be fair, the extraneous bit of punctuation was there for less than a year.

Also of note is the page highlighting PC Magazine’s decision to award Google with its Technical Excellence Award way back in 1999. Good call, PC Magazine.

The internet is old.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Highly Literate Simpsons

The HeiDeas blog has done all of us a tremendous service by cataloging all the linguistic jokes used on The Simpsons during the past four seasons. It's certainly worth perusing. Here's a good example to get you warmed up:
Episode: Funeral for a Fiend (2007)

Category:Idiom chunks, degree phrase

Sideshow Bob's psychiatic expert witness is giving evidence that SB was insane during his most recent attempt on the Simpsons' lives:

Psychiatrist: Robert was a peaceful boy, sickly and weak from a congenital heart defect. [He shows a picture of SB going to his prom in bed. The jury goes "Awwww!"] But then that Simpson boy started tormenting him, and he crossed over into dementia!
Sideshow Bob (defending himself): To what degree was this dementia blown?
Psychiatrist: Full! [Jury gasps.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why I Like Rock Band

I like Rock Band because it's fun. Most video games are. And they may even be good for you. But Rock Band is more than just fun and possibly a good teacher of problem-solving skills: it makes me appreciate music more. I've thought this for a while, but I had a hard time coming up with an appropriate food metaphor about it until I read Seth Schiesel's review of The Beatles: Rock Band in The NY Times:
It is an imperfect analogy, but listening to a finished song is perhaps like being served a finished recipe: you know it tastes great even if you have no sense of how it was created. By contrast, playing a music game like Rock Band is a bit closer to following a recipe yourself or watching a cooking show on television. Sure, the result won’t be of professional caliber (after all, you didn’t go to cooking school, the equivalent of music lessons), but you may have a greater appreciation for the genius who created the dish than the restaurantgoer, because you have attempted it yourself.
More than just introducing me to new artists and songs, Rock Band has taught me how to listen to music. I really never listened to music growing up--even in the car it was always sports or sports talk radio. Music was often a soundtrack to other things, but I rarely listened to it as activity in its own right. So I had a lot to learn. I'm not saying that I appreciate music as much as someone who actually plays an instrument or has devoted countless hours to intent listening, but I think I'm getting a hang for the basics. I can certainly hear more than I could when I started playing Rock Band, which isn't necessarily saying much because until I started playing this game I listened to music almost exclusively for the lyrics. Which is the point. Slowly but surely, a video game is helping me understand why everyone in the world seems to like this music thing so gosh darn much.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When Athletes Speak

Michael Jordan--along with John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer--was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last Friday evening. This year's Hall of Fame ceremony has garnered more attention than most years', and with good reason: it very well might be the most impressive class of inductees in the history of this type of thing. The ceremony was moved to a larger venue, ESPN marketed the event way beyond its efforts of years past, and even Jordan's choice of David Thompson as presenter was reported breathlessly by the media. But the real fireworks began when Jordan got up to speak.

Here's video of the address.

This speech has led to a mostly critical backlash, including this response from Yahoo!'s excellent NBA reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski:

This wasn’t a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. He had a responsibility to his standing in history, to players past and present, and he let everyone down. This was a night to leave behind the petty grievances and past slights – real and imagined. This was a night to be gracious, to be generous with praise and credit.

I understand where Wojnarowski is coming from: Jordan is pretty universally regarded as the best basketball player of all time, and the settling of scores in this forum, from the greatest, is somewhat petty. But it's this very hyper-competitiveness that made him great. Here is Dime Magazine's explanation for why Jordan ranks number one in their list of the Top 25 Motherf*ckers of All Time:

Michael wasn’t the most talented guy to ever pick up a basketball, but he became the greatest motherf*cker of all time because of unparalleled mental toughness. People made careers out of trying to be “Jordan Stoppers,” but no one was ever able to actually live up to that title. After getting that crown, Gerald Wilkins got a 31 ppg helping from His Airness in the ‘93 Eastern Conference Semi’s. What other motherf*cker abused guys specifically set out to stop him like Mike? Even as he was approaching 40 in the Wizards phase of his career, he refused to show weakness and was still feared.

Would it be nice if the cutthroat on-court presence made way for a gregarious off-court persona? Sure. But I think that may be unreasonable to expect. Jordan wouldn't have dominated basketball to the extent that he did if he didn't remember every slight mistreatment, using it as motivational fuel to continue dominating a sport beat nearly into submission.

David Foster Wallace discusses this general concept in his essay "How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart," collected in Consider the Lobster. He posits that world-class athletes are unable to say anything interesting about performing under pressure because they are hard-wired to remove all thoughts from their brains when a game or match is on the line. Here's a somewhat lengthy excerpt:

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called "naturals," because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even--and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially--under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

The price we pay, DFW claims, for athletic brilliance under pressure is boring interviews. And, I would claim, the price we pay for hyper-competitive athletes who basically never lose is a type of personality ill-suited to award acceptance speeches.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I was perhaps unreasonably excited for Inglourious Basterds. This happens just about any time one of my favorite writers/directors/actors/podcasters/bloggers takes on a project that means something to me. Will Ferrell making a movie about the ABA in the '70s? The concept sounded awesome at the time, even though that movie, it turns out, sucks. So when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a movie largely focused on American Jews, well yeah, this would be the type of thing that I would get excited about. But it turns out that the Nazi context slightly tempered my enjoyment of the film. Not necessarily because I consider it inappropriate to make entertaining movies about the Holocaust, but because any context at all makes Tarantino's hallmark violence and gore just a tad bit uncomfortable. It's a feeling I didn't get while watching any of his other movies, but it made this one just a tad bit awkward.

But the frame of reference isn't my biggest issue with this film. I'll let the excellent Matt Zoller Seitz explain what drives Tarantino movies:
Tarantino’s talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it’s the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It’s where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation.
And despite the mixed metaphor, I agree with his point wholeheartedly. To show you why he (and I) thinks this, here's a montage of this dialogue compiled by Seitz:

So we run into a problem when the majority of the dialogue in a Tarantino film is spoken in either French or German. The problem, specifically, is, I don't speak French or German, and I imagine that this is true for most of the American audience. So even though some pretty spectacular things are done with the subtitles--in addition to the incomparable Tarantino plot and camera-work and two Mexican standoffs--it's just not the same. Tarantino cuts the audience off here from what it most connects with. And it's this gap, more than any Holocaust squeamishness, that keeps this movie from being great. It comes close, but it's not great.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Taking a Hike

So here's the thing about spending four days hiking in a place as beautiful as Glacier National Park in Montana: you quickly run out of ways to describe the beauty of your surroundings. There are only so many times you can point out how nice the view is or how clear and blue the lake is before these observations become boring. Next time I'll bring a thesaurus.

But seriously, look at how nice these views are and how clear and blue these lakes are.

And I think the inability to describe the scenery combined with just the general human ability to grow accustomed to even the most breathtaking vistas led me to focus more on the hiking aspect of these trails than the destination. Sure, it was nice to reach the top of a mountain and look out at what we saw, but, in truth, there was no shortage of amazing sights from even the bottom of the mountain, not to mention the posters in the ubiquitous gift shops or, even, a simple google image search. This sounds cliche--and, in fact, it is a cliche--but you can learn a lot about yourself and your ability to persevere during the last four miles of a twelve mile hike after you've done more than 30 miles in the three days previous and you've been up since 7:00 AM after sleeping on several rocks and at least one tree root the night before and your knees and ankles are pounding and you really need to find a bathroom and no pit latrines don't count and you still haven't completely adjusted to the altitude and you haven't showered since Sunday morning and it is now Wednesday afternoon and it's hard to remember the original color of your ankles and calves because they are coated in dirt and you're so sick of eating food in bar form that you never want to see anything produced by Chewy or Nature Valley or Clif ever again. Or at least I did. This is the reason to hike.

The other interesting thing about Glacier National Park is how much effort is exerted to create a feeling of being in nature. You would think this wouldn't be necessary in a national park--but it is. The shuttle buses, obviously, are all low emissions. But even smaller touches--like benches, No Parking signs, support beams for pit latrines, and traffic barriers all constructed from logs instead of a sturdier, more man-made material--communicate the idea that this park values nature above man.

All smart places do this: Wrigley Field is old, but it purposely maintains this aesthetic of maturity. The same is true of Glacier National Park--metal park benches would feel out of place. But it's important to realize that these choices were conscious ones, even if they were also obvious ones.