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July 31, 2003
Books: The Armchair Economist
I love riddles. I don't mean the Laffy Taffy "What kind of shoes do ghosts wear?" kind (well, actually I love those too), but the non-funny kind that crop up in daily life and require a heapin' helping of lateral thinking to unravel. This is why, a while back, I got obsessed with Traffic Flow Theory: the study of how people behave in traffic.
As interesting to me as the riddles themselves is the fact that most of us (myself included) don't even recognize them as riddles until someone calls our attention to them. Why, for instance, do we have traffic jams? It seems like a stupid question -- traffic jams results from too many cars on the road, duh -- but Traffic Flow Theory illustrates that jams are not inevitable, but occur because people behave in very specific (and often counterproductive) ways. The trick to these real world riddles isn't so much figuring out the answer as realizing there is a question worthy of investigation.
Another fascinating (to me) "no-brainer" is: "Why do people stand on escalators but walk on stairs?" As with the traffic jams conundrum, it's not even obvious that there is any behavior worthy of research here -- if people stood on stairs they would never get to the top, duh -- but that didn't stop a bunch of economists at the University of Rochester from looking into this very puzzle. Some of the hypothesis those economists cooked up were summarized here by Steven E. Landsburg.
This is just one of many issues that Landsburg has explored in a regular Slate column entitled Everyday Economics. My interested piqued by the escalator question, I went back and read his entire series of articles, which tackle pressing societal issues ranging from how to win Ebay auctions to why tall people make more money to, my favorite, why people peel bananas with the stem-end up. (Monkeys peel 'em the other way, you know.) Eventually, though, I ran out of articles, leaving me with no option but to read his book, The Armchair Economist.
Written before his tenure at Slate, The Armchair Economist serves as a perfect lead-in to his column. It comes complete with a primer on economics, gives you some idea of Landsburg's worldview, and then tackles a few "Rational Riddles," such as "Why do movie theaters charge more for popcorn?" (Oh, you think you know why theaters charge more for popcorn? Well, tough guy, what if I told you that the chapter in which this is discussed is entitled "Why Popcorn Costs More At The Movies And Why The Obvious Answer Is Wrong" ...)
When not demonstrating that the obvious is incorrect, Landsburg also takes great joy in demonstrating that some plainly ridiculous ideas are, in fact, quite sound: the best way to make drivers safer is to take away their seat belts install sharp spikes on their steering wheels; a city that spends $10,000,000 to build a free aquarium may as well buy $10,000,000 of gold bullion and dump it in the ocean; and it is posible to build a factory that converts corn into automobiles.
For me, personally, The Armchair Economist was especially valuable, because many of the myths is sets out to explode are those that I (as a self-described progressive) hold dear: one chapter is entitled "Why Taxes Are Bad," another is called "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist." He even makes a remarkably convincing argument that bipartisanships in politics is something to be feared rather than welcomed. While I often read writers with beliefs counter to my own, I rarely come across an author who not only challenges my convictions but ponies up the logical arguments necessary to make me think "holy smokes, maybe he's right!" That's what made this the best non-fiction book I've read this year, and one that I recommend highly.
July 30, 2003
David Sedaris says he read Moby Dick. The liar. Well, I assume he's lying, because (a) he's a humorist (i.e., professional liar) and (b) it's well known that 71% of all Moby-Dick-reading claims are lies. But Sedaris provides a fairly believable account of how he managed to pull it off, so, I dunno -- maybe he did read it. It's possible, I guess.
In any case, even if he tried he probably got further into the book than I did. Earlier this year I, too, decided that, at long last, I would tackle Moby Dick. So I checked it out from the library, brought it home, and then assiduously ignored it for a few weeks while I read Nero Wolfe mysteries and graphic novels. Finally, one evening, I decided to bite the literary bullet. As I lay in bed before turning off the light, I picked up the well-worn volume, turned to Chapter One ("Loomings"), and prepared to fulfill a lifelong goal of mine.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ...Wait, what? Driving off the spleen? Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me?
Unnerved, I pressed on.
... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.I put the book back on my bedside table, turned to The Queen, and said "Hey, just FYI: I am not going to read Moby Dick. Like, never, in my entire life."
The Queen gave me the briefest of glances, shrugged, and went back to reading her own book. This is why I married her.
I enjoy crossing things off my "To-Do In This Life" list, and I've been x-ing out a lot of them in the last couple years. Not accomplishing things and then crossing them off, oh no; just attempting (or mentally reevaluating) them and then announcing "Yeah, that's not happening." Like, I always wanted to run a marathon. And, point in fact, I'm sure I could do the Seattle Marathon in November if I wanted to. But I recently ran a half marathon and, oh brother, whatta freakin' drag. By mile 8 I was totally bored. By mile 10 I was wishing I'd brought a magazine. The idea of running 13.1 miles twice -- hell, if I wanted that kind of excitement I'd buckle down and read Moby Dick. Which I could also do. If I wanted to. Which I don't.
Ten years ago, if you asked me if I had read Ulysses, I probably would have just scoffed "of course" or hedged with an "I've been too busy reading Milan Kundera" or whatever. Now, at the age of 32, I not only lack the initiative to read boring classics or run marathons, I don't even feel the urge to lie about it any more. "Never read Ulysses and never will," I'm likely to say today. "I got shitfaced in an Irish bar once, and I figure that's close enough."
Some people might say that lowering your standards is no way to meet your life goals. But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?
July 29, 2003
REO Speedwagon Arrested
Hanson, who filed a restraining order against Speedwagon in April, says she has long anticipated such an incident. "What started out as friendship had grown stronger," she told reporters after the attack. "Recently it always seemed that they were following me -- they couldn't even wander without keeping me in sight."
Authorities believe that Speedwagon approached by water, bypassing the fence in front of the house by bringing a ship into shore. "We have found a boat," confirmed officer Janet Orwant, "although we still haven't located the oars. It's possible that they were thrown away forever."
Said Hanson of the event, "I'm just glad it's over. They were getting closer than I ever thought they might."
This marks the second time an 80s Band has been taken into custody this year, following the February arrest of The Police on charges of stalking.
July 27, 2003
Chatting with a female friend.
Me: I dunno what it is, but I've seen a lot of attempted pick-ups on the bus recently.
July 25, 2003
Of Owls And Uranium
When I was a college student, my classmates couldn't expel a lungful of air without articulating the phrase "Spotted Owl".
Now, granted, I was an Environmental Science major at the aggressively liberal Evergreen State College, which is situated within chainsaw-earshot of the Olympic Peninsula, epicenter of the whole "Spotted Owl" brouhaha. So it's perhaps unsurprising that we all had Strix occidentalis on the brain. But at the time, 1992, it seemed like the Spotted Owl was a topic of conversation throughout the US, with everyone insisting that it be either assiduously protected or roasted on a spit and served with caramelized onions.
The Spotted Owl occupied the center stage of the logging debate largely because environmentalists had thrust it there. Convinced that they could never sell the public on the idea that old-growth forests were complex ecosystems worthy of protection for a multitude of environmental, economic and aesthetic reasons, they instead opted to pin their hopes on a cute, fluffy, big-eyed bird. Funny how pseudocyphellaria -- an endangered lichen so unloved it lacked even a common name -- never wound up on a Sierra Club leaflet.
Eventually, Spotted Owls came back to bite environmentalists in the ass (figuratively speaking only, alas). Having reduced old-growth advocacy to the well-being of a single species, environmentalists were aghast when reports began to trickle in suggesting that the owls might be able to survive in second-growth stands as well. Many of my classmates denounced such findings as scurrilous propaganda invented by a cabal of timber-company fiction writers. Naturally, these were the same people who hailed every study favoring their cause as a paragon of Pure, Unadulterated Science.
As Spotted-Owls-in-second-growth findings became more prevalent and credible, environmentalists found themselves in a tricky position. After all, if studies had shown that good old pseudocyphellaria was able to live in second-growth, no one would have given a tinker's damn because no one had built their house of cards on a bed of lichens. But with their poster child at risk, the environmental movement found itself having to laboriously retrace its steps. Suddenly the Spotted Owl was never the point in the first place, oh no. It was just a symbol, you see, for the larger issue of saving the old growth. But by then the public considered the Spotted Owl synonymous with anti-logging activists, and may well have concluded that if the owl didn't need the old growth then maybe the US didn't either.
All groups fall prey to Spotted Owl Syndrome from time to time, but lefties seem especially susceptible. The Trent Lott case was a classic example. Frustrated by the Republican stranglehold on political power, Democrats and left-leaning bloggers dogpiled Lott after he uttered an ethically ambiguous accolade at Strom Thurman's birthday bash. Rather than use the occasion as a springboard to address the many very real cases of institutionalized racism inherent in our political system, Lott's detractors opted instead to simply hound him from office. In the end, the Republicans switched to a more charismatic and less controversial Senate Majority Whip, while the Democrats belatedly tried to focus on the "larger issue." But like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson's Lottery, Capitol Hill was content to return to the status quo once the stoning was complete. Republicans came out stronger, conservatives were lauded for their strong stance against racism, and Democrats won a completely symbolic and useless "victory".
All of which brings me to the current "uranium from Africa" hullabaloo, a debacle that has all the earmarks of a liberal self-petard-hoisting: overzealous zeroing-in on a single aspect of a complex issue -- not even an aspect, really, but, as in the aforementioned Lott-ery, a specific string of words -- accompanied by a great show of feigned outrage. It has long been known that the Saddam / Niger / yellowcake allegations were all but groundless, but it's only now that the story is getting traction that the Democrats are loudly declaring themselves shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the statement was deceptive.
Oh, brother. I hope the folks at the Democratic National Committee HQ aren't high-fiving each other over keeping this story in the headlines, because, truth be told, it's not critics of the White House that are giving this thing legs but the Keystone-Cop-esqe bumbling of the White House itself. If Bush had just ponyed up with a "Whoops!" three weeks ago, that would have been the Second-Growth Study to this issue's Spotted Owl. Instead we've been treated to the last 10 minutes of a Perry Mason episode, where, one by one, various persons in the courtroom leap to their feet and announce that "no, I'm the guilty one!"
It's no longer even a political issue, really -- the embarrassing ineptitude of the administration in addressing this imbroglio has passed into the realm of entertainment, like a montage of People Falling Down clips on America's Funniest Home Videos. Sooner or later the White House is going to figure out that the optimal strategy for Uraniumgate damage control is abbreviated STFU, at which point the issue will evaporate. Unfortunately, many of the Democratic presidential candidates have already hitched their wagons to the yellowcake star, and may find themselves floundering when it winks out of existence.
Conservatives love to refer to liberals as elitists. I wish I could vehemently object to that characterization, but in many ways I think they are right. After all, while forever accusing Republicans of pandering to the ignorant, of dumbing everything down for mass consumption, of assuming that the public can't handle anything more complex than a soundbite, lefties blithely do the exact same thing and, worse, do it poorly. They start by assuming a nation largely populated by uneducated rubes, and conclude that they have no choice but to go all reductio ad absurdum to make their case. That's why they tie the entire old-growth logging debate to a single critter that may or may not depend on the forests in question; that';s why they skewer the Republican's Senate Majority Leader not because of his party's frequent insensitivity to racial issues but because he coughed up a grammatical hairball that could be interpreted as a slur; and that's why they are making a big to-do about a single sentence uttered by a President whose entire agenda, foreign and domestic, is a Progressive's nightmare.
I understand that in an era of superficial media coverage, politicians must rely on symbols and shorthand to get their messages across, but Democrats seem especially prone to confusing their own metaphors with the broader issue they are supposed to represent. The uranium reference in the State of the Union address is interesting insofar as it's symbolic of the larger campaign of deceit and distortion that was used to justify the Iraqi Invasion, and that is what the "opposition party" should be talking about. If the Democrats are truly the "Party Of The People" as they like to boast -- and if they hope to recapture the White House in 2004 -- they should respect the people enough to speak frankly about these matters, instead of getting investing huge amounts of time, resources and energy into oversimplifications that serve mainly to insult the public's intelligence. Otherwise they might as well change their mascot to the Spotted Owl and call it a day.
Update: In the comments, the estimable Dean Esmay rebuts:
As a (mostly) former Democrat, I thought I'd point out two things:
July 21, 2003
Me: Did you hear that story they just had on NPR? I guess they're saying that kids in daycare are more aggressive than stay-at-home kids.
The Queen: Well, if the daycares they studied are like the one I went to, it's probably because they only have one toy and the kids have to fight over it ALL DAY LONG!
The Queen: I'm okay. I'm over it, really.
July 18, 2003
A League Of Extraordinarily Bad Reviews
The critics are raving about LXG!
"Unfathomable balderdash." -- Megan Lehmann, NEW YORK POST
July 17, 2003
Conversation at a social gathering.
Hetrosexual Female Buddy: Hey, your [female] friend S. is really cute.
MORE LIKE THE TOUR DE RIP-OFF!!!
Hey everybody. Sorry I haven't been posting very much recently, but The Queen and I are on vacation. I wish I could say we're having a good time, but, I gotta tell you, this is the WORST summer trip I have ever taken!!
It sounded pretty good when I signed up for it: a completely free (!!) tour of France (or as they say in French, a Toor du Fronce). But the whole thing turned out to be a colossal disappointment. First, we flew all the way over there at our own expense, but I figured it was worth it since the rest of the tour was free, right? So we get there, and there's, like, no cruise ship or tour bus or anything -- they want us to ride bikes! The whole way! And they don't even give you the bikes, you're supposed to bring your own! WTF PEOPLE!!!!??!
I guess it's pretty good exercise and all, but this tour still sucks because we, like, never stop to look at anything -- we haven't been to the Effiel Tower or the Ark of Triumph or nothing. I thought we'd be, you know, relaxing and eating crepes and stuff, but this whole trip is all just, like, go go go! And the only food they give us is powerbars and water. Totally lame.
The worst part is -- aw shit, a whole bunch of my tour group just rode past this Internet cafe so I have to wrap this up. So anyway, stay away from the France Tour Company or whatever they're called, because they are a bunch of SCAMMERS!!!! Needless to say, The Queen is pretty mad -- she says I should have "done" some "research" or whatever on the trip ahead of time. But oh well -- she'll cheer up next month when I take her to Cuba for her birthday. I've been hearing a lot about this place called Guantanamo Bay and I think that sounds real pretty.
July 16, 2003
Research Day: Gout, Tridents, and High Concept
What is gout? While reading that Benjamin Franklin book, I was struck by how many people of that era (including Ben himself) were afflicted with gout. Unfortunately, the book never explained the ailment, and these days you almost never hear of someone suffering from it. All of which got me wondering if gout hasn't been eradicated or renamed.
Well, according to this page, gout is still around, affecting "275 out of every 100,000 people." Gout is a form of arthritis caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints of the body, and is thought to be exacerbated by overconsumption of alcohol, red meat and rich foods (all of which Franklin enjoyed in bulk). The big toe is the most commonly affected joint.
I'm not sure why gout is unheard of these days, since it's incurable and seems to be as prevalent as ever. Perhaps it's just lumped in with generic arthritis. Or maybe I'm not old enough to know anyone suffering from it (or to suffer from it myself): it tends to afflicted men after the age of 45 and post-menopausal women.
What were tridents used for?: Tridents are the weapon of choice amongst sea-faring fantasy races, Ocean Gods, mermen, and anthropomorphic tuna cans critters. But what were they used for?
Fish-poking appears to be the original use of the trident, offering fishermen thrice the chances of stabbing a trout that a spear affords. Tridents were also employed as horse prods. But as with anything with a pointy-end, Tridents were soon adopted by warriors. In fact, the peak of the trident's career seems to have been as a gladiatorial weapon in arena combat. There was even a type of gladiator called a "retiarius" whose job it was to throw nets over opponents and then get all tridental on their ass. Good work if you can get it.
By the way, tridental is an actual word, meaning "having three points of prongs". Neato.
What does "high concept" mean? Sometime, when encountering a new word or phrase, I immediately scurry off to m-w.com to find out what it means; other times, when I'm feeling slackerly (i.e., 91% of the time), I just gloss over it. But after encountering the same unknown word on half-dozen occasions, I can usually pick up its meaning from context.
Not so with the phrase "high concept". Despite seeing this in countless movie reviews and articles about television, I'm still not entirely sure what it means. Basing a story on a single unusual idea or something? And if there's "high concept," is there "low concept" as well?
According to this article about script writing (which I found by typing the phrase "what is high concept" into Google -- it's amazing how well that works sometimes), "High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image." As examples, the article cites Liar, Liar (lawyer is magically forced to tell the truth for 24 hours), Splash (shy man falls in love with a mermaid), and some flick called Valley of the Gwangi (cowboys discover a lost valley filled with dinosaurs). In regards to the latter, the author writes "The poster shows cowboys on horseback herding and roping a T- Rex. When you see the poster, you almost do a double take. Cowboys? Dinosaurs? In the same movie? You want to know more. You want to see the film. That's High Concept."
Contrawise, the term "low concept" is used to refer to scripts that are character- or plot-driven. In this interview, screenwriter David H. Steinberg puts it this way:
Look at a movie like As Good As It Gets. Totally low concept. It's a bunch of quirky characters who do some interesting stuff, but what really happens in that movie? I don't know. TV is low concept too. Friends is the ultimate low concept show. It's like six people sitting around on a couch.Previous Research Day entries can be found here.
July 15, 2003
Movies: 28 Days Later
Curious as it may seem, some people, when in the mood for an "exciting movie," are more interested in those that involve shotguns instead of spelling bees. Here's a movie review for you for that crowd.
But first, an apology to M. My friend M. dislikes "scary movies," and will flat out refuse to see films like The Ring or Hannibal. But I somehow convinced her to accompany me to a showing of 28 Days Later. I did this by employing my preternatural ability to Not Know What The Hell I Am Talking About. "Oh no, it's not a scary movie," I reassured her, despite almost complete ignorance about the film's subject matter. "I think it's, like, an old fashion zombie flick, more of a shoot-em-up action movie than anything else. You'll like it."
Ah, no. 28 Days Later is, in fact, a Scary Movie, and a fairly good one at that. That's because it takes its cues not from Day Of The Dead (as I had assumed), but from Steven King's The Stand. As with King's novel, the story begins just as civilization ends, as a super virus rips through society leaving only a few survivors in its wake. Well, actually that's not true -- unlike The Stand's Superflu, the pathogen in 28 leaves plenty of survivors: the handful of those who never contracted the disease, and thousands of the afflicted who have been turned into mindless rageaholics (see "zombies," above). The former group tries to live through onslaughts on the latter and, well, there's your movie.
Plucky bands of humans beset by relentless hordes monsters, you say? Why isn't this a shoot-em-up action movie? Well, for one thing, it is set in London where stricter gun control laws have left people at the mercy of roving bands of savage automatons, just as the NRA has always predicted. Second, these guys are, like, the Marion Jones of zombies. No more fumbling around with the car keys while the zombies slowly lurch towards you -- here it's flight or fight -- and "fight" ain't lookin' so good.
But what really prevents 28 Days Laterfrom becoming Quake: The Movie is that, like The Stand, it doesn't assume that humans would become a unified front against a post-apocalypse menace. As in our current, pre-apocalyptic world (assuming your reading this before the upcoming North Korea debacle), the characters in 28 are motivated by different things -- survival, greed, lust, fear -- and not all of these motives are harmonized. Those who band together are not simply trying to get to the helipad or infiltrate the lab to find an antidote, they are struggling to come out on top in this Brave New world, and that takes them into conflict with their companions as often as it does the Infected.
28 Days Later is one of the better horror / psychological thrillers I've seen in the last few years -- certainly better than the aforementioned Ring. My only big complaint is the lousy film quality. Director Danny Boyle said he chose digital video to give the film a gritty feel -- and it does, admittedly. But a friend of mine, who saw 28 before me, summed it up best when he said, simply, "Whenever I see a movie in the theater that was shot on digital video, I feel ripped off." Nine bucks to see a movie that looks crummier than an episode of Everybody Love Raymond is kind of a drag, even if the film turns out to be unexpectedly enjoyable. In other words, 28 ain't going to lose much in the transition to DVD, so maybe you'll just want to wait and rent it. But if you do, here's a tip: don't watch it with anyone with a stated aversion to "scary movies," or you'll be in trouble afterwards.
July 14, 2003
The Scandal Widens
The thing I don't understand about this whole "State of the Union" hullabaloo is why anyone believed that Saddam needed to go to Niger in the first place. I mean, Christ, thirty seconds of Googling and he could have learned to make the stuff himself.
And for that matter, why does everyone think George Tenet's statement that "those 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president" was about Iraq? When I heard him say that, I just assumed he was referring to this passage:
This country has many challenges. We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations. (Applause.) We will confront them with focus and clarity and courage. (Applause.) And another thing: Clay Aiken is, like, totally going to win American Idol, mark my words. (Wild applause.)
July 11, 2003
More Than A Reprimand, It's A Life Philosophy
When I was five my mother gave me an Oreo cookie. I promptly shoved the entire thing into my mouth and, while chewing, asked if I could have another.
My mother said "You should concentrate on enjoying the cookie you're eating instead of thinking about the next one."
That's pretty much the best advice I have ever received in my life.
Copyrights and Wrongs
Today I write about copyright law and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen over at The Morning News.
By the way, this article contains the conjunction "contrawise," which I hereby declare to be a Real Word. Please begin using it forthwith.
July 09, 2003
I was at the gym today, running on the treadmill, and the TV directly in front of me was showing a new televised atrocity called "First Date" or "Date Time" or somesuch. Judging from what I saw they might as well call it "Single For A Reason"
It was showing on TLC, which I thought was supposed to be "the woman's network," but you'd never know it from the guy they had on the show today. He was to women what bovine spongiform encephalopathy is to cows. When he first met his date -- and I mean, like, the moment he met his date -- he pulls two of those whattayacallums, those plastic stick things that have the two balls attached to them, that you can kinda twirl to make the balls bounce off of each other? You know what I'm talkin' about? They're called "clackers" or something? Anyway, he pulls two of those out of his pocket and thrusts one at the woman and says "Here, take this and start clicking it!" with alarming alacrity, and then he starts twirling his own and the balls start clacking and he's urging her to do it too, "Come on, start clicking!," and after a few moments she remembers that the producers of "Date-aster!" (or whatever it's called) aren't paying her to stand around and look ossified, so she starts twirling her clacker and the balls start colliding, and after about twenty seconds of this the guy says "Great! Now we can say that we clicked at the very start of our date!"
The woman made a face like she had just swallowed a herring smoothie.
I, meanwhile, watching this train-wreck of an opening gambit while running in a crowded gym, could not prevent myself from loudly exclaiming "Oh my crap!" in horror.
Everyone turned to look at me, and, embarrassed that I had gotten caught watching "Dates Of Wrath" (or whatever it's called), I quickly adverted my eyes from the screen to the wall mirror. Which, in retrospect, was probably a mistake, since it made it look as though I was shouting vulgarities at my own reflection.
So, anyway, yeah, I looked like an ass. But, y'know, you gotta put these things in perspective. Everyone at the gym thinks I'm a lunatic now, true. But it could be worse; I could be on a televised date with The Clicker. Thank god for small mercies, that's what I always say.
Update: Apparently it's called A Dating Story. Do not watch in public.
Note: I have a bevy of movie reviews to get to this week, having put off nearly half a dozen of them. But although this is the one I saw most recently, it is also the one I'm going to cover first, because (a) it ain't gonna be in theaters long, and (b) you should see it while it is.
As anyone who has read more than four paragraphs of this website knows, I'm not much of a speller. But it's not my fault. I was handicapped as a child by having a sister who was a whiz at spelling, which meant that I would just demand that she spell giraff for me rather looking it up in the dictionary myself. (I swear to god that I didn't just intentionally misspell "giraffe" for comedic effect.) Cursed with a grammatical crutch, I never learned to spell stuff on my own.
Consequentially, I consider spelling, like all things that I can't do well (playing softball, making home repairs, performing neurosurgery, etc.), to be Not Terribly Important. I mean sure, it's great if you can pound out "cacophony" on the first try, but, if not, that's why George Washington Carver invented SpellCheck, right? A corollary of this is that I am fascinated by those who, on the contrary, find spelling Terribly Important Indeed. This was true of Word Freak, the book profiling professional Scrabble Players, and even more so in the documentary Spellbound, a film that follows eight kids and their parents as they train and compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
In the first half we get to meet the contestants, see glimpses of their family and personal lives (which seem to revolve around flash cards with "sarcophagus" written on them), and watch them trounce their peers in the regional semi-finals. Like the Scrabble junkies, these kids are largely uninterested in what the words mean, except insofar as that knowledge helps them get the right letters in the right order. But unlike the characters in Word Freak, who all seemed to be of a similar mold (i.e., social maladapted borderline-savants), the octet of kids in Spellbound run the gamut from the totally geeky to the, well, slightly-less-but-still-pretty-darned-geeky. They come from a wide variety of geographical regions, communities, and families. Each claims that winning isn't important and all are lying on this point, but some clearly have more emotional investment in the outcome than others.
Almost stealing the limelight are the parents, each of which supports his child in a different way and to a different degree of intensity. Some exhort their child to excel, while others constantly remind the speller (and, by extension, themselves) that success in a spelling bee is ultimately unimportant in the largest scheme of things.
The ample time lavished on exposition pays off in the second half of Spellbound, which covers the highlights of the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Now that the audience relates to the eight (of 248!) kids as people rather than as freakish spelling machines, watching them compete is as riveting and stressful as anything you are likely to see a cinema this year. On more than one occasion I had to look away from the screen in agony when one of my favorites was given a word like "cephalagia," and people in the theater where openly cheering when one of the kids narrowly avoided elimination. Plus: boys that talk like Musical Robots! All of which makes for one of the most inspirational, gut-wrenching, and exciting films I've seen in a spell.
Attention Seattleites: Spellbound is currently playing at the Guild 45.
July 07, 2003
Problem Solving Skills: On!
This morning I had a tuft of hair sticking up on the back of my head, and no amount of wetting or combing or flattening would get it to stay down. So in my groggy, pre-caffinated state, I conconcted this brilliant plan whereby I covered my head with gel and brushed everything upwards so that all of my hair stood straight up, thereby disguising the wayward tuft.
Now, two cups of coffee later, I realize that I look like an idiot of the hair-sticking-straight-up-into-the-air variety.
Just another example of the analytical reasoning skills that have made me the crackerjack software development engineer I am today.
My Name Is Matthew And I'm Here To Say ...
I'm typically not a OMFG'er, but OMFG. [Windows Media Player file]
Update: Also! This!
July 03, 2003
Bad Review Revue
Hollywood Homicide: "My god in heaven, did anyone making this film have an original thought in their lives?" -- Kevin Carr, Film Threat
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle: "If this is the kind of empowerment women in Hollywood have been fighting for over the last century or so, it's no wonder Katharine Hepburn died this weekend." -- Glenn Kenny, PREMIERE
Dumb and Dumberer: "This nightmarish travesty barrels along with all the whipcord speed and nimble comedic grace of a loved one's funeral." -- Marc Savlov, AUSTIN CHRONICLE
The Hulk: "Goes on for two hours and 20 minutes and there's not a stirring or exciting moment in it. At last, a comic-book movie that National Public Radio listeners can be proud to take their kids to see." -- Charles Taylor, SALON.COM
From Justin To Kelly: "Kelly plays 'Kelly' and Justin plays 'Justin,' and anyone who plunks down $8 plays the fool." -- Wesley Morris, SEATTLE P-I
July 02, 2003
Support Our Troops
WASHINGTON (AFP) - President George W. Bush vowed that strikes on US-led forces in Iraq would not lead the United States to "leave prematurely" and defiantly challenged any foes in the war-torn nation to attack US troops.Okay, pissed now.
July 01, 2003