Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I was just looking at some old script coverages I wrote (I used to write an awful lot of script coverages) and was amused by the following excerpts.*

How's this for a pitch? "You know Some Like It Hot and Tootsie? Well, this is like that, but really really bad!" For one thing, if we really need another movie about a boy having to pretend to be a girl or a girl having to pretend to be a boy, some thought has to go into making it work. One advantage the boy-posing-as-a-girl version has is that the boy will probably be wearing a wig and lots of make-up, which will make him look dramatically different, whereas in this screenplay we just have to swallow the idea that Meg's boyfriend, having seen her with her hair cut short, is completely incapable of recognizing her when she takes out her earrings and stuffs a banana in her pants.

Twice in the story someone smells a fart before it happens: Billy "senses something in the air," and a moment later "plugs his nose, then Mark FARTS, loudly"; later "BILLY sense something [sic] and smiles," and a moment later "Mark FARTS" again. This seems like a 12-year-old girl's misconception of the mechanics of farting. Who in the world thinks the smell precedes the fart?

You expect a movie like this to be offensive—it almost has to be—but without redeeming characteristics, the offensive parts start standing out all the more boldly. Not even beginning to catalogue it all, I think I can sum it all up with just one direction from the screenplay: "He notices that the man is not a man but a midget." Because midgets are not men. Right.

Not counting Luther, there are six black characters in the story, and of the six, two are blind, two are named Ruben (one is blind and named Ruben), one is obsessed with sex, one is obese and can reliably be made to run across a field if lured with a candy bar, and one is a senile old lady named Bootsie who screams and runs around comically at the mention of the KKK and ends up "in [a] freezer...chomping on chocolate ice cream." It's just too bizarre—like something a true-bred racist might come up with if she were trying to write for a super-PC cartoon show about recycling.

Not a single moment in the entire script made me laugh aloud—one or two moments, tops, might have made my facial muscles tighten ever-so-slightly, as if I had been about to smile. For the most part, it was just unpleasant, like being groggy from cold medication.

What could be less funny than a movie in which we hear the wisecracking interior monologue of an animal? I had hoped the human race was done with that particular subgenre. Did we learn nothing from Look Who's Talking Now?
What we have throughout is these conversations between people that meaninglessly pause just long enough for the dog to get in his non-dialogue. Jill says something, Ben answers, then we need just enough space for the dog to say something. It is such C-level TV sitcom crap: reading the screenplay, you can practically see the awkward cut to a dog without any particular expression on its face—probably thinking about shitting—with the lame voiceover. You can almost hear the canned laughter (you certainly can't imagine the real kind accompanying this drivel).
Another problem is what you might call the why-factor. Why are we hearing this dog's thoughts? Does it have anything at all to do with what a dog would actually think or do, even with a comic interpretation of the mentality of a dog? No. We don't know what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog, but we can be pretty damned sure that it bears no resemblance to sarcastic wisecracks.
The sad and terrible answer is that a movie like this presupposes that it is in fact delightful, hilarious fun to look at a dog and hear Danny DeVito say, "Who are you calling 'boy'?" It has all the brilliant wit and originality of a potato-chip commercial.

Because different things are funny to different people, I'll dispense with the judgments. Who cares what I think is funny? Instead, let's talk about what the writers think is funny: Three funny things are shit, sex, and celebrities. Homosexuality is funny, as is a man in a skirt. A person singing Sisqo's "Thong Song" about his dong instead of a thong is VERY funny. Any recent hit song with dirty lyrics is probably funny: "Oops! ... I did it again...I played with my rod...got splooge in my mouth." Ha, ha! That one is especially funny—and convenient, because eight-year-old boys will also enjoy it, which expands our potential audience. Things that were funny in other movies are funny, like, say, when Fred says, "Wake up, Jennifer, snap out of it, you're in denial," and slaps and punches and kicks her (the basic gist of which worked very well in Airplane!), or when Fred talks about his "pretty typical" childhood—which isn't typical at all, ha ha! (in a way that brings us pleasantly back to a similarly funny moment in Austin Powers). A gerbil being lowered toward an anus and saying, "Uh-oh," is funny. Two kids being hit by a car and calling for euthanasia—extremely funny, worth putting in twice.

The story has some nice traces of a Chinatownish darkness, but falls so far short of Chinatown that I feel bad about mentioning the two in the same independent clause.

If I watched this movie, I would hate myself for several hours for having wasted money and, more importantly, time—time I could have spent watching another movie, or sleeping, or procreating.


* Out of respect for the screenwriters, I've changed character names where possible.

I get that a lot!

Here's a good April Fool's joke worthy of Harvard admissions: send Idina Menzel or Gideon Yu the Conficker worm, overnight delivery, and neither Symantec or McAfee or all the geniuses at Columbia University or UPenn or Brown University or Yale will be able to get through those tough times! ABCNews.com and all the Memphis TV stations (with any autonomy) will probably be focusing on One Mind Ministries or iPhone 3.0 (or Memphis news, which has a lot of Memphis commercial appeal) instead of virus protection, so you'll be able to hum the American Idol theme while you and Eddie Waitkus read Elmer Gantry or watch The Green Death.

Does Nicole Narain know whether Keyshia Cole's mother died? And will either woman perform at the Britt Festival? Carlee Roethlisberger certainly won't.

All right, I'm gonna go watch Osbournes Reloaded.

[This bizarre and irritating* joke/experiment has been brought to you by Google Trends and fatigue. Also, the letters WTF. Oh—and HOT NAKED COLLEGE GIRLS.]

* Don't forget shameless and misguided! –ed.

Monday, March 30, 2009

And we're back!

Alt85 has been languishing, I know, and I apologize. I also know that some people actually read this thing with some regularity, so to the both of you in particular* I would like to offer something resembling an explanation. (It comes in a few separate parts, so you can pick whichever you find most persuasive.)

  1. I had a birthday; I am 31. And because I am turning into my grandfather, this birthday spanned a full week and promises now to have an aftershock over the weekend. (Also because I am turning into my grandfather, I now eat only prunes and bran muffins.)
  2. Without going into too much detail or giving too much context: I have been scrambling to put together a couple of spec scripts. For those of you who don't know, what this means is that I'd write an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, for example,** in the hopes that the head writer or producer would read my script and say, "Wow, I want to hire this guy to write for our show." I've never done anything quite like this,*** so it's filling up pretty close to 100% of my mental space. Also, I am watching a tremendous amount of television in preparation. That's some pretty pleasant homework, but it's homework all the same.
  3. I was disturbed to find that, according to Google Analytics, somebody found Alt85 after searching for "little girl's crotch." It's because of this, surely, but it gave me pause. (Actually, that's not true: I mean, it's true that somebody got here by searching for "little girl's crotch," but not that that stopped me from posting—I actually just found out about 15 minutes ago.) Of course, now that I've written about it, this site will probably get an even bigger pedophile audience. Welcome, child molesters! Something is wrong with you!
Posting only to say why I'm not posting seems wrong, so here's a bone: my friend and I played squash this morning! We did it a few times a few months ago and it petered out, but now we're back in business. I'm excited about this for three reasons: (1) playing squash with a friend is better than hooking yourself up to an exercise machine, (2) Annie Hall, Max, and (3) we've been doing it at the New York City club of a famous Northeast university, which is automatically kind of hilarious—e.g., take a look at this actual painting that hangs in the men's locker room:

With the towel? Too amazing. I can't quite figure out whether a sense of humor is involved—I kind of hope not because it's funnier if it's humorless (strange though that may sound).

Here's a picture my friend sent me of the two of us on the court:

All right. Back to the generation of unsolicited television comedy. God bless America.

* That's a joke. There are at least 5 of you.
** I am not actually writing an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
*** Except for the following Ali G–style dialogue I wrote in 2003 or 2004 in anticipation of interviewing Emanuel Ax:

ME Yo, big up yo'self; I'm 'ere wif my main man, Emanuel X.
AX That's Ax, actually.
ME Well, you and I 'ave different accents, innit. I say X, Y, Z; you say...Ax, Y....
AX No, my name is Emanuel Ax. A-X.
ME Yes, I know it's a X, but surely...
AX No, it's an A and then an X.
ME ...For real.
AX Yes.
ME And your brother, Malcolm—did he also spell it...?
AX Malcolm X was not my brother.
ME For real?
AX Yes.
ME OK, wicked. Let's start over. I'm 'ere wif my main man, Emanuel A. X. First question: why 'ave you disowned your own brother? Surely it's a bit racialist to [etc., etc.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

even more malarkey

[I wrote the following "sample analytical essay" my senior year of high school, for the — — Journal. Rather similar to this, in certain key ways.]

The irony inherent in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, is immediately apparent when you look at the cover and see that it is scarlet, or at least some scarlet-like reddish color. The book also does indeed consist of many, many letters, although they tend to be black, rather than scarlet. In addition, each chapter, instead of identifying itself with a number (as most chapters do: "FIVE,"* for example), does so with a letter, such as "i."†

The dramatic tale begins with the letter A—a rather large letter A, at that. In fact, this letter A is three lines deep, which makes one think: "That is one large letter A." And one would not be mistaken in such an assertion, because the letter A in question is, without any doubt, almost strikingly large, resulting in a pervasive ironic sense of irony that sort of slinks through the novel pervasively. Sure enough, the scarlet letter that Hester Prynne must wear upon her bosom is a large A!

What's more, Hester likes to sew, and as everyone knows, right after "sew" comes "la," and then "tea," and that will bring us back to "doe," which is, of course, a deer (a female deer). "La" is French for "there" and also for "her," so Hawthorne is clearly emphasizing the fact that the Puritans made HER stay THERE, "there" being the place where they made her stay. Also in the major (or Ionian) scale there is the note called "ray," which is the perfect fifth of sew. As we all know, the perfect fifth is a fulfilling sound: likewise, Pearl, who chases a RAY of sun, is the fulfillment of something having to do with Hester. Hester, being mother-of-pearl, is sort of twisty and shiny and hard to look at without getting confused. Hawthorne is clearly showing the irony of Hester's plight.

Hawthorne's Ionian scale metaphor extends even further, in fact. Because of Hawthorne's title, we must be thinking about letters when we read the book, and the first letter of each chapter has been enlarged (see above). If we only look at the big letters, ignoring the little, extraneous letters, the first four chapters read as follows: "AT FA"‡. Fa, as we know, is the note right before sew and right after me. What Hawthorne is telling us is that we are all like Hester, in an ironic way.

Reading this book, we cannot help but think of Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Satan falls out of Heaven by mistake and lands in Hell, where he's ugly and then makes a castle or something. In chapter "iii," Hawthorne says, "The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of divine institutions."§ First of all, the word "mien" is clearly saying that these men are mean people, which is very ironic, and Hawthorne has cleverly slipped in the word "period" to tell us that Hester is having her period. Nor is this irrelevant to the story, for we know that letters, commonly arranged as sentences, are brought to an end by periods. So Hawthorne is saying that Hester's life as a virtuous person was brought to an end when she reached puberty, a word which, of course, ends with "tea," a drink with jam and bread which brings us back to doe. In other words, puberty is always a destructive force that leads to the end note which is also the beginning of a new scale, a very ironic concept.

Hawthorne, with an ironic mustache

* Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1976) 174.
† Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960) 49.
‡ Hawthorne 49–71.
§ Hawthorne 65.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Yale Journal of Pretentious Free-Association, Spring 2000

[Which see. Click 'em to enlarge 'em.]

[I was Mumblequatch Anuspladdy, C. Philip Whiddlin–Teats, Athena Borborygm, Mutt Peniston, and one half of Pintuique Galapagos; Mr. Woodrow was Damon Terwilliger, the incredible Sylvia Rainier, and the other half of Pintuique. The walrus was Paul. The two other contributors have declined to be identified and cannot necessarily be blamed for that.]

Salutations from the Editor [UPDATED]

[The following is from The Yale Journal of Pretentious Free-Association, an actual publication that a friend and I actually conceived and produced about 9 years ago—in the real world! All credit for the editor's name—and I believe for the name of the journal, as well—goes to the fecund imagination of my collaborator, Thomas Woodrow (see here!) whom I'll name if and when I get his permisison. I may also include a link to an actual full, online edition of the Journal's one issue if I can figure out a way to do it elegantly, gracefully, beautifully...with love. Here you can view an actual full, online edition of the Journal's one issue—not elegantly, gracefully, or beautifully, but with love.]

Salutations from the Editor:

When I first arrived at Yale my mind was thinly veiled by the yolkish fluff of youthful ambition and the sublimated anxiety that our poetic populace has compared to butterflies in the stomach, calling to mind Vladimir Nabokov in his transcendent puzzling and Milton's consistent understatement of his own uniformity under God (i.e., Shakespeare). Clearly the students at this glorious institution—people! that staggering recognition of ourselves in others!—cannot be "people" in the same way that Hamlet is a person, mere words on a page that in the reading become something larger; no: people here somehow transcend through intrascension (if you will) undercutting the limbo-stick of the norm in such a way as far to overfly the same, as the space between notes determines the true melody, or the ur-melody, from which all melodies must be birthed, dripping (as I was, as were we all) in the yolkishly placental fluff of the womb. Motherhood, clearly, is the defining feature of Yale: Yale begets us upon itself as surely as did Da upon Mum, coitally echoing, or earlier foreshadowing, the powerfully drumming conclusory portion of "The Wasteland."

What is motherhood, after all, if not a restatement of statements, an explanatory footnote to a Middle English text, long ignored by academic circles in favor of far lesser, sexier texts? My own mother once took me upon her knee and spoke to me in French (the irony of that, the constant tension of English against English, battling itself in its etymology, just as we must in ourselves repeat constantly and endlessly the sexual interchange that created us!): "Tu es beau, mon petit, mon cher, et papa ne t'aura pas." That recognition of my own beauty and the pan-Freudian undercurrents of paternal dominance in the subconscious literary framework undercut all further aesthetic discoveries until I was twelve years old, at which point I first experienced Shelley and was altered forever, as a caterpillar is altered before flying into the spider's web.

Thus, under the auspices of the ever-burgeoning awakening of self and of other-in-literature, bathing in the beneficently teasing gaze of the secular deity Logos, I bring to you, with the subtly self-defecating pride of the newly-arisen from intellectual slumber, the first issue of The Yale Journal of Pretentious Free-Association. Congratulate not the editor, but thyself, for thy reading rejuvenates and retroactively creates. Bless you. Bless you.

Mumblequatch Anuspladdy

Sunday, March 22, 2009

what's cooking

Below please find a partial list of what I'm up to in real life:

  • writing a young-adult, sci-fi/comedy novel!
  • doing for Pete's Dragon what James Joyce did for Homer's Odyssey!
  • trying to figure out how to sell a cartoon show to Adult Swim!
  • sitting on an unfinished hour-long HBO-style drama pilot (opposite of above), and waiting to see whether it hatches!
  • pitching longshot book-review proposals to well-known periodicals!
  • imagining what it might be like to be a television writer!
  • masturbating! blogging!

Short Round at work on his blog.

Sometimes I eat and sleep! Maybe one day I'll make some friends!

Donations/patrons welcome.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Grace Paley and the substance of reality

I wanted to write about what makes Grace Paley so very very good (because I have only read one of her books, The Little Disturbances of Man, but already I feel like listing her among my favorite writers*), but in order to answer that question I'd need first to define what makes literature good or bad, which in turn would require some kind of a proof of the arguably unprovable claim that taste is not relative, or not merely relative, or that taste is not central to the value of art. (I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend during the spring break of my freshman year of college:

SHORTY I mean, if in 100 years nobody in the world liked Shakespeare—like everybody thought he was total garbage—but say The Bridges of Madison County were held up pretty universally as like the greatest literary achievement of mankind...would it still be true in any meaningful sense that Shakespeare is "great"? Or would that mean The Bridges of Madison County was better than Shakespeare?
GIRL Shut up.

For years I saw this as evidence of the girl's fundamental cognitive limitations, but recently it occurred to me that, yeah, maybe I needed to shut up.) But so once I start trying to answer the question, "What makes Grace Paley so great," I pretty quickly spiral all the way back to the question of the absolute vs. the relative, the question of whether anything has any inherent value at all—which is pretty far from the original subject. (Or is it? Maybe part of what makes Paley so good is that her literature makes those questions seem not to matter at all—which indeed maybe they don't: maybe we're dealing with the sort of claim that meaningfully is neither true nor false?**)

Didn't Camus say that the only question that mattered—or the most important question, or something like that—was whether to kill yourself? For some reason I feel like asserting that the only question that matters is whether God exists. I say that impressionistically, or let's say metaphorically, because taken literally I don't find the question interesting at all. In fact I suppose I'd better rephrase it: do we live in chaos, or does order exist? In Barthelme's excellent "On Angels," "The death of God [leaves] the angels in a strange position," as they are forced to reevaluate their meaning and function in the universe, to redefine themselves (because their main function used to be adoration [of God]); one proposal is that they "affirm chaos": "The work of definition and explication could, if done nicely enough, occupy the angels forever, as the contrary work has occupied human theologians." I love this. I love it because, yes, we have been, some of us have, occupied forever by the work of finding order; why not have the angels work to find chaos? At any rate, those two extremes—and everything between, usually denied or ignored at the poles—must be considered when considering the "goodness" or "badness" of a work of art.

There's literature that enriches, there's literature that entertains...I remember Woody Allen said—I think in a book called Woody Allen on Woody Allen?—that what art is is a kind of entertainment, just entertainment for a different kind of person with slightly more sophisticated interests and tastes. Dropping the value judgment, let's just say that there is a kind of entertainment that is all about a certain kind of intellectual stimulation. (Or does it maybe go the opposite direction? Is all entertainment about intellectual stimulation, just different kinds of intellectual stimulation? Colorful flashing lights have got to be about as intellectually stimulating as anything in the world, for a baby, who is only just beginning to learn about the nature of reality, the I and the other, the world of events and accidents and intentionality...I mean, man, do we even have an equivalent, intellectually? It would be like having some pandimensional superbeing give you a tour of something indescribable that makes you feel like a hick not for living on Earth but for living only in the universe.) What I find the very most alienating about its being suggested I'm a snob for enjoying Gravity's Rainbow (because, yes, people think you must be a pretentious jerk if you like stuff like that, and they're often not afraid to tell you) is not the insult, not what I see as the total wrongness of the judgment, but the fact that the reason I like Thomas Pynchon is that I find him incredibly entertaining...and I find a lot of other novels that more people like actually quite boring! And these are not intellectual positions I'm taking—I'm not trying to make some kind of point—it's just that I happen to be a person who likes this one kind of thing and you happen to be a person who likes this other kind of thing; what's so alienating is that you think I can't possibly like what I like or not like what you like and accuse me of being disingenuous or even malicious—what's so alienating is that you reject my taste so absolutely that you can't even conceive of the possibility that it is my taste!

But then of course we're back to the relative versus the absolute. And, sure, I would love to find some way to prove that the stuff I like deserves to be liked. Am I satisfied saying, "Well, I like this and you like that"? No! I want to bring you around to my opinion! And failing that, I want it demonstrated finally and conclusively that I am right and you are wrong! That's why this post is what it is: I don't want to say, "Hey, everybody, I happen to like Grace Paley"; I want to say, "Hey, everybody, Grace Paley is OBJECTIVELY GOOD!"

From a relativistic standpoint, the best you can do to disprove a claim is to show that it's internally contradictory. (And even that of course requires that everyone involved agrees that a position must be consistent to be valid—or indeed that a claim requires validation!) But maybe a more satisfying way around the strictest absolute–relative debate would be to point out the ways in which a thing can have the capacity to affect at leastsome as opposed to merely one: for example, in response to claims that a book like Gravity's Rainbow is "unreadable" (yes, these claims are made, often angrily), the fact that many people do in fact read it might be taken as an appeal to a reality outside of either camp's potentially solipsistically delusional perspective. But then of course you could say, "You're lying."*** And would this argument mean that if a bunch of people see the Virgin Mary's face in a pretzel, then it must in fact be some kind of objective miracle?

Maybe in the end we can only talk about ourselves and speculate about others, and what matters is how this talk and speculation "land" elsewhere. But that's depressing...it's like we're each on our own desert island putting messages in bottles. How about this: connection and meaning and communication do not take place inside each of us, but by definition require interaction, require the minds of two people. As such, the meeting of two individuals is like a Venn diagram, an overlap, still grounded in individual perception but blending with another's...? There was a lot of talk a few years ago about how you aren't supposed to praise children but are instead supposed to praise their hard work (e.g., instead of "You did such a good job on that paper!" you should say, "You obviously worked really hard on that paper"—which is idiotic because the correlation between hard work and good results is anything but direct), and maybe, like so many things, that's partially true rather than simply true or false: maybe it's good to praise kids but for that praise to be an expression of admiration, something that passes between two individuals in relation to their existence and behavior in the world, rather than an assertion of some kind of absolute static property of the universe—more "I am impressed by you!" or even "You have impressed me!" than "You are impressive!" or "You possess characteristics that are impressive!" for example...?

Oh, I don't know, I'm not a philosopher.****

"I saw a famous angel on television; his garments glistened as if with light. He talked about the situation of angels now. Angels, he said, are like men in some ways. The problem of adoration is felt to be central. He said that for a time the angels had tried adoring each other, as we do, but had found it, finally, 'not enough.' He said they are continuing to search for a new principle."
-Barthelme, City Life 140

* And, in particular, to group her with folks like Barry Hannah and Denis Johnson.a
** My greatest shame: I have never been able to appreciate Tolstoy all that well. I am convinced that probably Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels ever written, and yet I couldn't get through it because I felt that I was required to accept Tolstoy's morality (as opposed to Dostoevsky, whom everybody seems to agree is vastly inferior to Tolstoy, but whose possibly more explicit Christianity never seems to insist upon itself outside of the fictional world—i.e., if Alyosha believes that Jesus is the Lord, there is no particular pressure for the reader to agree with him before moving forward with the story). Donald Barthelme, in "At the Tolstoy Museum": "The entire building, viewed from the street, suggests that it is about to fall on you. This the architects relate to Tolstoy's moral authority...Too, those who are caught by Tolstoy's eyes, in the various portraits, room after room after room, are not unaffected by the experience. It is like, people, say, committing a small crime and being discovered at it by your father, who stands in four doorways, looking at you." (Further defense of my probably indefensible position: Mailer wrote something about how, when Chekhov met Tolstoy, Tolstoy laid into him about how terrible his plays were, and that they were "even worse than Shakespeare"; Chekhov later wrote [or Mailer imagined that he wrote, I'm not sure which], "I drove to the train station over snow-covered roads. I whipped the horses. I beseeched them to go faster. Faster! And to the full moon I cried aloud, 'I am even worse than Shakespeare!'")
*** I think also of A Fish Called Wanda: "Monkeys don't read Nietzsche." "Yes they do, Otto, they just don't understand it."
**** Although I am the Head of the Philosophy Department at Harvard University.

a In the interest of total clarity I should note that while I have read let's say six of Johnson's books (including the big one), only one (Jesus' Son—a novel of short stories, maybe uncoincidentally) struck me as Great with a capital G, and one other (Resuscitation of a Blind Man) struck me as lowercase great—but in nothing of his that I've read have I not been very pleased with the writing...just more so, sometimes, than I am with the book. If that makes sense. In other words the level on which Johnson's genius is visible to the naked eye is: the sentence?

Friday, March 20, 2009

my nominee for stupidest ad campaign

(click to enlarge)

Here is a partial list of things that these advertisements do not do:

  1. amuse
  2. titillate
  3. comment interestingly on society (or any other other subject)
  4. make any sense on any level
  5. tell us anything at all about Svedka vodka (except that their ad campaign sucks)

The only thing these ads inspire in me (apart from irritation) is wonder that they are still around after—I don't know—years, at this point? Does that mean they work? If that's so, then I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with the Quaker Oats guy: call it quits, humans, call it quits.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Go humans go

  1. Huh?
  2. Does this sort of suggest that either (a) the Quaker Oats guy is our representative, the human race's representative, or (b) the Quaker Oats guy is not himself human and is cheering us on from the outside?
  3. The guy getting out of the cab saw me taking this picture, and he looked at the ad, then back at me, and said, appreciatively (like he totally understood), "Quaker Oats."
  4. Why no period? Is the suggestion that the Quaker Oats guy has gotten the human race pregnant? (I'm kidding, I'm kidding.*)
  5. I do kind of like the lack of a product name, although of course obviously the reason they've done that (or were able to do it) is that they're so smugly confident that everybody recognizes their mascot. And that makes me hate them.
  6. He looks like somebody I know.
  7. He looks drunk.
  8. I like the font.
  9. Huh???
  10. Isn't oatmeal kind of a laxative? In which case "Go humans go" translates roughly into "Shit humans shit"?

* But has he?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


(click to enlarge)

A while ago I walked through a subway station—I forget which one—where every advertisement was down, and all there were were those naked billboards I like,* and the only images and words around were strictly informational, as if public transportation were a service being provided to the people by the government and not a business concerned primarily with profit. Politics entirely aside, it was just æsthetically** very enjoyable.

Side note: while I have no interest in seeing the film advertised on the peeling-away poster above, I do think it's a pretty successfully creepy image. What the fuck is coming out of that kid's mouth? Cloth? Smoke? A friend of mine thought it was wood. And the expression on the kid's face is just right: not overly distressed (which would make the image more about what was happening to him instead of our own experience of freaked-out incomprehension) but also not overly calm (in which case we would probably file the kid himself away under "supernatural phenomenon" and thus wouldn't see the bizarre vomiting-up as incomprehensible in itself, but rather file it away under "random shit that ghosts and monsters do")—this is the kind of thing that, if you actually saw it in real life, would probably turn you into a blubbering mess with fæces in your pants.

* Not to be confused with these naked billboards.
** Why I spell this word this way: (1) it's the only spelling even listed in the OED, and, more importantly, (2) I figured out how to make an æ with a simple keystroke [although I haven't figured out yet how to pronounce the letter Æ, so I'm not sure whether "an æ" is correct—anyone? anyone?]. I remember as a kid I was eager to find uses for the various symbols my word processor could make. Very little has changed. £€¡∞§¶°ª≠œ∑®†¥øπ∆©ƒ∂ßåΩ≈√◊∫ıµ

Monday, March 16, 2009

ABC, battling 123

Frustrated with the unnumbered streets in NoLIta or Nolita,* Dr. Math recently suggested that uptown is for Math majors and downtown is for English majors. Observe:

(click to study the numbers)

(click to peruse the words)

Whether or not this comes down to a battle between the arts and sciences, I do have a great fondness for Lower Manhattan. In the spirit of unnecessarily brutal self-analysis, I will point out that part of the reason I like the area so much is that I grew up on the Upper West Side and some anxious and superficial part of me is surely desperate to shed my uptown associations and to roll around in downtown associations like a dog in garbage(?). I remember once, when I was in my early 20s, another, much cooler citizen of Manhattan essentially denied me my New Yorkerhood (my humanity, even) by saying that everything north of 14th Street was unspeakably uncool—and in classic insecure adolescent style I accepted her assessment as true instead of rejecting her as ridiculous. (I see now that she was being ridiculous and she was right.)

When I was teaching English at a private school (very much north of 14th Street, very much south of 125th), the following conversation with a ninth-grader amused me but also reminded me of my own personal map of New York City, circa 1993:

STUDENT Where do you live?
SHORTY Downtown.
STUDENT Like...42nd Street?
SHORTY Further downtown.
STUDENT 34th Street?
SHORTY Further.
STUDENT 14th Street?
SHORTY Further.
[The student's eyebrows go up.]
STUDENT 8th Street?
SHORTY Even further.
STUDENT 4th Street?
SHORT Further.
STUDENTY 1st Street?!
SHORTY Further.
[Student's face expresses total incomprehension.]
STUDENT 0th Street?
SHORTY Well, pretty close. I live a little bit south of 0th Street.
[Student reacts in a way not substantively different from the way he'd presumably have reacted if I had said, "I live in New York Squared, in an alternate dimension."]

And I will confess: I am very pleased with myself. In fact my only problem is that I'm 15–40 years too late to this neighborhood. But I don't want my unnecessarily brutal self-analysis to give a false impression: I'm not all about appearances. I'm only partially about appearances. As are we all.

Below: a larger and more complete version of the excellent map of Lower Manhattan.

(click to enjoy)

* But never, ever "NoLiTa," which just doesn't make a lick of sense.

Little Bit of Bullshit

(click to enlarge)

Quite apart from the fact that ads suggesting that the lottery might be a good way to get rich1 are wildly unethical (imagine ads for alcohol with copy like, "Escape all your problems...find true happiness!"), these particular ads border on false advertisement.2 First there are the claims that all you need is a little bit of luck, that there are 100,000 winners a day, and that the chances of winning are 1 in 9. Here, taken from the N.Y. Lottery's official web site, is what those claims mean:

(What exactly is a "ball baby"?)

So there's a 1 in 575,757 chance that you'll win almost $58,000, a 1 in 3,387 chance that you'll win $508, a 1 in 103 chance that you'll win $26 (wow, exciting!), and a 1 in 9 chance that you'll win...another chance to play. In other words, what they mean when they say you've got a 1 in 9 chance of winning is that you have a 1 in 9 chance of not losing yet.

Now, I'm no mathemagician (and I invite my mathemagician friend to comment on this very blog post with some proper mathemagic—check back below to see whether he's done it!), but I have carefully examined this blog post and feel confident about the accuracy of the following analysis, even though it's incredibly let's just say rickety and inelegant:
  1. If only the $58,000 first prize were in play, then the expected value of a $1 investment in TAKE 5 would be 10¢.3
  2. If only the $508 second prize were in play, then the expected value of $1 would be 15¢.
  3. If only the $26 third prize were in play, then the expected value of $1 would be 25¢.
  4. If only the fourth prize were in play, then the expected value of $1 would be 11¢ if you got your $1 back (which, as I point out in bold above, is not in fact what's going on).
The problem with the above is of course that all four prizes are in play, and I'm not sure then how to figure out the overall expected value—but it can't possibly be more than all four added together. So let's just say (Dr. Math?) that the expected value of a $1 investment in TAKE 5 is ≤61¢. Given that the expected value of a $1 bet on a single number in roulette is 94.6¢, you begin to get a sense of how ridiculous it is to present this game as having good odds.

On top of all this, the big problem with the 1 in 9 odds (in #4 above) is that what you have a 1 in 9 chance of doing is (again) not increasing your money, not even keeping your money, but not losing your money yet. One way to look at it is that they give you your $1 back but then you are required to play again—but if you can't cash out, then the game is not over, and if the game is not over, you cannot meaningfully be said to have won. So that 1 in 9 claim is essentially false.

Meanwhile, the slogan "All You Need Is a Little Bit of Luck" is classic advertising evil because it's nearly impossible to disprove: what is "a little bit," after all? (I wouldn't even be surprised if the secret added value of having that irritating little mascot is that, if it ever really came down to it, the N.Y. Lottery could claim that "Little Bit of Luck" is ultimately only a name and not even a proper claim!) "Hey there, undergraduate Theater Studies major! With a little bit of luck, you'll become the most famous actor of your generation! What, you say that'll take a lot of luck? Well, to me $100 is a lot of money, but to you, when you get rich & famous, $100 will be like 1 Italian lire4—just a little bit of money! A little and a lot are relative, baby!!!"

And none of this yet is even what I find the most offensive about these ads.

Not only is it misleading at best to say that all you need is a little bit of luck, but also they've left out the important information—all you need for what? They've set it up so that they can say (as indeed they already have5) that all you need to get to play the lottery again is a little bit of luck. But what lifts these ads from the merely slimy all the way up to the outright mendacious6 is copy like what you see in the ad at the top of this post: "With 100,000 winners a day, who says you can't live large in New York?"

(I've used this image before.)

O.K.: "live large" is a joke about their stupid little mascot. But "live large in New York" means something very specific, and it is not a coincidence that it's in an ad for the lottery. Yes? New York is expensive: this ad is saying that it only takes a little bit of luck to live large in New York. In other words, it is very clearly suggesting that TAKE 5 might be a reasonable way to increase your personal fortune. And even forgetting that the most you could make from a game of TAKE 5 is around $50,000 (which in Houston would be $20,000, which if a family of four in Houston were making that in a year, that family would be living below the poverty line), even imagining, in other words, that winning the first prize in TAKE 5 would mean that you could "live large" in New York in any meaningful sense—even then, we've already established that if you had to choose between investing every last penny of your money in TAKE 5 and investing it in the number 6 on the roulette table, the number 6 would be the better choice!7

I'm tired and surely making minor mathematical and logical mistakes here. But the point stands: (a) plenty of people out there, addicts or no, look to the lottery as a way to make money, (b) in fact the expected value of a $1 investment in this particular version of the lottery is something like 61¢, and (c) here we have ads whose entire message is that this particular version of the lottery is easy to win. Given that governments should penalize businesses that mislead the public...I want to see tiny, disproportionate heads roll!

1 Or—given the seriousness of gambling addiction—really any lottery ads at all.
2 In fact a Staten Island woman has sued, although I must say that her particular objection seems unnecessarily weak and easy for the Man to deflect.
3 To put it another way, if you played again and again and again and again, you could expect eventually (i.e., if you didn't have to worry about eventually running out of money) to lose 9/10 of your money.
4 "What, you say the lire has been replaced by the euro and isn't worth anything anymore? Well then I guess you've proved my point!!!!" (As I recall from my visit to Italy in the late 1990s, a lire was worth about 1/7,000 of a dollar. I may be wrong about this...it might have been more like 1/7,000,000,000.)
5 "The clear message is that the 1-in-9 odds definitely includes [sic] winning a free play" (same article as in the second footnote).
6 Up and down: also relative, baby!!!!
7 To be clear, this is if you "invested" that money by betting on 6 again and again and again—which is fair because "investing" any amount of money in TAKE 5 would have to mean buying a large number of TAKE 5 tickets and therefore, in effect, playing TAKE 5 again and again and again (I am not going to bother checking the Lottery's web site and will just assume that no single TAKE 5 ticket costs thousands of dollars).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Excuse Our Appearance, We're—

The New Shelton wet/dry had a link to this piece about Saul Bellow Bass, who not only designed some of the great movie posters of the 20th century but also is responsible for logos like these—so simple and perfect* that even a brand-hater like me has got to clap his hands like a hypocrite:

Anyway, I'm posting not because I wish to praise the late Saul Bass and his catchy logos, but rather because they reminded me of the following bit from Mark Leyner's bizarre and largely excellent novel The Tetherballs of Bougainville—enjoy:

Most people...tend to disparage—or ignore altogether—the role of highly skilled copywriters in the creation of the text-driven signs that we see everywhere around us.
Len Gutman was not only considered technically virtuosic in his craft, he was deemed a visionary genius... His work is so ubiquitous and prototypical that it smacks of the primordial, as if it's somehow existed always, independent of human artifice.
Use Other Door—one of the very first signs that Gutman wrote as a young man—became an immediate classic. Gutman went on to write a stunning series of signs that fundamentally redefined our sense of public language, including: Out of Service, Visitors Must Sign In, and Push to Start. Then—in what is considered Gutman's annus mirabilis—an astonishing burst of creative activity in which masterpiece followed masterpiece in astonishing succession: Do Not Enclose or Obstruct Access to Meter, Turn Knob to Right Only, Right Lane Must Turn Right, and the sublime Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work. (That same year, Gutman also co-wrote We Deliver, Totally Nude, and Void Where Prohibited.)
There's an austere beauty to much of his work, pared down to its irreducible essence. In a famous television interview with Gutman late in his life, a critic is standing with him in front of a restaurant's lavatories, admiring what is indisputably Gutman's most popular, and arguably his finest, sign: Men.
They then move over to the distaff door
"You didn't write Women?" asks the critic.
"No, I wish I had," Gutman smiles wistfully...
Gutman was writing what would be his final and unfinished sign, Excuse Our Appearance, We're—, when he suffered a severe coronary...

* Or is it just that I'm like so many people in my generation, and we fetishize the æsthetic of our parents' earlier adulthood, presumably as a way of either returning to infancy or projecting ourselves into a world before our parents were parents and therefore a world in which our parents effectively do not exist, where we're therefore free to be entirely independent individuals without roots or chains (q.v. The Dead Father)...except that of course then what we're doing is escaping our parents by diving into our parents the way Patrick Swayze dived in Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, which probably isn't the best strategy in the world. (Or should I be talking to my analyst about this?)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Something Regarding Musical Favorites

by Short Round (age 30)

I was pleased to read Chuck Klosterman's claim that it's fair to disregard later works when evaluating a rock band: "Unless they die before the age of thirty-three, nobody's entire career matters, and we all unconsciously understand this. If you're trapped in a Beatles–Stones debate, it's not like anybody tries to prove a point by comparing Help! to Steel Wheels." Can we lower that age to 30? That way, listing Weezer or the Beastie Boys as a favorite band would automatically mean you were talking only about the 20th century—you wouldn't have to worry* about explaining that you're talking about the blue album and Pinkerton and nothing post-Harvard...or that Hello Nasty was good fun and "Ch-Check It Out" all well and good but that that's not what you're talking about when you talk about love.

Yeah, man: 30. I approve of most everything John Lennon ever did, but I wouldn't be too devastated if I had to surrender my copies of everything after Plastic Ono Band. (The dream is over, dude.) And I liked Sea Change O.K., but I woudn't really be comfortable naming Beck as one of my favorites unless we stopped after Midnite Vultures. I'm even happy cutting Ween off at White Pepper, much as I enjoy Shinola. Or take my teenage hero Frank Zappa:** I find him most tolerable now in those first few Mothers LPs; hold up only Absolutely Free and We're Only in It for the Money and I feel no shame.*** Set it at 30 and Prince cuts out after Sign o' the Times: nobody can wonder whether you're talking about the Batman soundtrack. Works just fine for old Lou Reed, too: I like Berlin,**** but I can survive without it. (I'm not exactly sure where all this leaves me, with a birthday coming up this month...I guess maybe I'll never be a rock'n'roll legend? I've still got a couple of weeks...)

So: I like Weezer! I like the Beastie Boys! Another way to say it: I never really made it out of college...?

(Now, lowering it to 29 would erase Use Your Illusion...)

* Not that a well-adjusted person would worry about this anyway.
** I was the teenager, not Zappa.
*** Although I am sort of in love with the 32-year-old Zappa's guitar solo in "Zomby Woof": yowza, yowza, yowza.
**** I may actually like the Schnabel concert film better than the album—really picks up steam partway through (and singlehandedly convinced me that I like Antony Hegarty, which as far as I can tell is not actually true).


[from an e-mail correspondence with my imaginary friend]

"GOTTLIEB" You are now someone who has blogged about and posted pictures of his cat on the internets. That can never be undone.

SHORTY Eventually I will have absorbed and digested the entire universe.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

words, words, words

Q. How do you pronounce this word: fiancée?
A. Paul Fussell says in the book Class that emphasizing the last syllable is middle class and "ridiculous" (Fussell sees the American middle class as being defined primarily by its embarrassing and futile efforts to appear more upper class—pretentiousness, in other words), whereas Bryan Garner says in A Dictionary of Modern American Literature that emphasizing the last syllable is "U" and emphasizing the second syllable is "Non-U" (meaning upper class and not upper class). Merriam–Webster puts the emphasis on the last syllable, Dictionary.com thinks the last and the middle are both legitimate but puts the last-syllable pronunciation first, and the OED puts the emphasis on the first syllable.
So it looks as if one of the following is true: (1) Fussell was confused (he did seem to think that fiancé was a middle-class term for boyfriend), (2) Fussell was blinded by a prejudice against properly pronounced French (it seems he may not know how to pronounce any French words himself, as evidenced by his listing the middle-class pronunciation "craypes" for crêpes as an example of people's showing off their correct French pronunciation), (3) Fussell was right that the upper class did or does pronounce the word with the emphasis on the second syllable, although the fact that Garner and the OED agree on it makes me doubt that, or finally (4) Fussell, who did not say how the word should in fact be pronounced (only how it shouldn't), agrees with the OED, feeling that the word should be pronounced FEE-on-say rather than fee-on-SAY, and wouldn't like fee-ON-say either.
Now is as good a time to any to mention to people that a man never has a fiancé unless he's gay. Or I guess unless he's pretending to be gay, as in this summer's eagerly awaited art-house crossover film, Brokeback Mountain 2: Reverse Cowgirl. [Note: This joke does not actually make sense.]


Q. How about banal? How do you pronounce that one?
A. The OED lists the rhyming-with-anal pronunciation as "older" and wants us to pronounce the word instead as buh-nahl (with the second syllable rhyming with the A in palm), Merriam-Webster prefers that the word rhyme with canal but also acknowledges the OED's preferred pronunciation and the rhyming with anal, and Dictionary.com likes it in this (descending) order: canal, rhymes-with-anal, OED. So I'd say the OED pronunciation is fine and dandy if that's what you already say, but the preferred American pronunciation seems to be the one that rhymes with canal.*

The Panama Canal.

Q. What does autological mean?
A. Huh, that's sort of a random question. A word is autological if it has the property it denotes. For example, polysyllabic, being itself polysyllabic, is autological because it can be used to describe itself. Other examples include, unhyphenated, pronounceable, abstract, nonpalindromic, and adjectival.
The opposite is heterological: the word monosyllabic is polysyllabic and therefore not autological, but/therefore it is heterological. (Most words are going to be heterological: like hairy and well-dressed.**) Got it?

Q. Yeah, actually I knew that.
A. What, are you testing me?

Q. No, I have a question about the word and wanted to sort of, you know, set it up first.
A. Is the question whether autological is autological?

Q. Why, yes! That's exactly what I was going to ask.
A. Well, let's take a look. First let's see whether heterological is heterological. That question is basically a restatement of Russell's Paradox and therefore maybe more the domain of Dr. Math, but as my old grandpappy used to say, "Fuck Dr. Math!"

Hairy and well dressed? Fuck Dr. Math.

  1. Again, a word is heterological if and only if it cannot reasonably be used to describe itself. For example, psoriatic is heterological if psoriatic is not itself psoriatic. (And since no word suffers from any kind of skin disease, psoriatic is therefore heterological.) To put it as a general rule, any word W is heterological if W is not itself W.
  2. Therefore, heterological is heterological if heterological is not heterological.
  3. Uh-oh!
If something is true only if it is false, then you have run into a kind of feedback loop like the one caused by the statement, "This statement is false": if it is false, then it is true, in which case it is false, in which case it is true, in which case it is false. In which case it is true.
So heterological cannot be heterological if it is heterological, but then if it is not, then it is. Which means that it is not.***

Q. What about my question, which was whether autological is autological?
A. I've been told that this question is simple and poses no logical problems at all, and yet somehow I find it to be something of a mindfuck. Maybe I'm just sort of dumb.
Let's see:
  1. A word is autological if and only if it can reasonably be used to describe itself. For example, psoriatic is autological if psoriatic is itself psoriatic. (And since no word suffers from any kind of skin disease, psoriatic is therefore not autological.) To put it as a general rule, any word W is autological if W is itself W.
  2. Therefore, autological is autological if autological is autological.
  3. Um...?
"Is pentasyllabic autological?" means "Is pentasyllabic a word that has five syllables?"—so all you need to do then is count the syllables. (Answer: yes, therefore pentasyllabic is autological.) But "Is autological autological?" translates into "Is autological a word that has the property it denotes?"—so what do we do then? It appears that we have simply asked the question again with no addition of information: it is if it is.
My sense is that there's no way to "unpack" the question: it's like some kind of logical fractal. Am I missing something?

Tune in next week for more...Random-Ass Bunkum!™

* Note: Alt85 fave the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is left out here because I actually wrote most of this in like 2005, in an e-mail. Yeah, you heard me: in an e-mail. (This is actually what I think about, and how I think about it! Save me!)
** It's useful to limit these to adjectives. In fact it may be the case that autological and heterological are necessarily adjectival...not sure about that.
*** So it is.a

a So it isn't.***

Monday, March 9, 2009

humiliation at the turnstile and the terrifying question of talent

The other day—Friday, I think it was—I descended into the Bleecker Street station, had my MetroCard out before I got to the turnstile (as always), watched the doors to the 6 train open just as I got there, swiped my card at about the same speed as the speed of my approach...and got "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN." No big deal: it happens to the best of us. So I swiped again. "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN." O.K., sometimes third time's the charm. "SWIPE CARD AGAIN AT THIS TURNSTILE." At this point the people getting off the train were off the train, and people were beginning to board. "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN." I tried another turnstile. "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN." The subway robot beeped and told everyone to stand clear of the closing doors. "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN. PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN. TOO FAST. SWIPE CARD AGAIN AT THIS TURNSTILE. PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN."

Here's the thing (and if you think this sounds like I'm apologizing to you for a lost erection, then you may be on to something): this never happens to me!

For the rest of the day, I could not get my damned MetroCard to work. The next day (and ever since), it worked fine—just as it had pretty much every day, several times a day, for almost nine years. I have never been particularly sympathetic to people who couldn't get their MetroCards to work. I'm particularly infuriated by people who swipe, don't notice the error message, and then spend 5–10 seconds trying to go through the turnstile while a line of people behind them are thinking (and eventually shouting), "Too fast! Too slow! Insufficient funds! PAY ATTENTION! LEARN TO READ!!!"1 But it goes beyond intolerance of idiocy: I actually get annoyed when people just can't make the thing work, not because they're being dumb, but because I don't have that problem myself. If I can use a MetroCard, why can't you?—is basically the attitude, with a little bit of a defensive–indignant thing, as I'm very aware that "It's impossible to swipe a MetroCard!" has become a kind of non–New Yorker's N.Y. truism (like, "It's impossible to hail a taxicab in New York!"2).

But so here's the thing. How do we know the difference between (a) mastering something, being good at it, even simply knowing how to do it, and (b) having a string of good luck? Win a coin toss five times in a row, and you can't help it: you're going to start thinking you've somehow gotten the hang of it. You could be in the minority of human beings who understand that it's possible to win a coin toss any number of times in a row, that while the odds are slim, they're still 50–50 each individual time, and still you might start to think you were really good at coin tosses. I'll bet even Dr. Math would fall victim to this sort of illusion.

Now, I'm not saying that I just got lucky with my MetroCard every single day for years and years—but I am saying that I don't have the foggiest idea how to swipe a MetroCard. I mean, obviously I do because I do it, but do I know what I'm doing? I certainly couldn't explain it to anybody. It's all feel. And the thing that freaked me out in a way that is much larger than anything having to do with public transportation is that the difference between swiping it right and swiping it wrong was perceptible to me only in the results. In other words, it's all feel, and yet I couldn't feel the difference!

What I am about to say will probably strike some people as obnoxious, but what can you do.3 I did very well in school. I was good at school. But it occurred to me even way back then that my intelligence was a bizarre and hard-to-pin-down quantity. Man oh man, was I ever smart.4 The only way I knew I was smart was that I did well at things that other people didn't do as well at, that things were easy or obvious to me that were difficult or baffling to other people—but I had no sense of why that might be: intelligence was not a power I had, but rather an observation, or more like a description or summary of events over which I had no conscious control. It just happened to be the case that when I took a test or wrote a paper, I got a good grade on it. I am not bragging: in fact, the point I'm trying to make here is that this set up a situation in which it was very easy to imagine one day waking up and not getting good grades anymore, not automatically understanding things my peers couldn't seem to understand, not finding school to be easy.5

There are plenty of things we know how to do that we really know how to do. These are usually the things we learn or master. But then there are our talents, the things it's just turned out we're good at—like magic! And these are the things that can sometimes feel totally arbitrary. Funniness, I suspect, always falls into this category. No matter how great a comedian you might be, sometimes you're going to try to be funny and nobody is going to laugh. That must be a successful stand-up's worst nightmare: one day Chris Rock goes on stage and bombs, and for the rest of his career he's just never able to get more than a few polite chuckles, ever again. Chris Rock knows he's funny because he knows that what he thinks is going to be funny generally ends up striking other people as funny. But if no one ever thought he was funny again, then where did his superpower go?6

And frankly nothing we have is immune to this kind of cosmic theft. Hit your head the wrong way or have the wrong thing go down in your brain, and what do you know? You don't know how to talk anymore. Everything you can do, you may one day be incapable of doing. What am I saying? You will one day be incapable of doing. We're all going to die, folks. Everything you have, everyone you know, one day you will lose.7

So, yes, we've gone from MetroCard swiping to the condition of Man, from public transportation to mortality.

Well done, everyone!

1 And by the way: people, you do not need to wait for the person in front of you to board the train before you swipe your MetroCard. In fact, you can swipe your MetroCard immediately upon their swipe's being accepted. It pays to make sure they're actually going through the turnstile (because if some idiot makes the thing go around and doesn't make it through, he could end up going through on your swipe), but once he's on his way through, SWIPE YOUR CARD. People always stand there waiting patiently for the person to be clear of the thing, as if they're afraid they'll electrocute somebody if they swipe too soon. Nobody will be electrocuted. This is a busy city! Swipe, swipe, swipe!!!
2 My theory is that the reason out-of-towners think it's so hard to hail a taxicab (another thing I've always found easy, assuming any cabs are even around) is that they are fucking idiots: almost every day I see some tourist getting angrier and angrier as more and more cabs drive by without picking him up—the funny part being that none of these cabs have their lights on! If you change the statement to, "It's impossible to hail an occupied cab," then sure, I suppose you're right.
3 I'm not even going to give that a question mark.
4 But don't worry: I was bad at sports.
5 That's a plausible scenario. For example, I once felt like a math genius because I was the first person to finish a Geometry final exam and thought it was way easy but then started having serious doubts when it took 45 minutes for the next kid to come out and he and everyone else were like, "Oh, man, that was so hard," so I started to think I must have missed a page of the test or something, but then I got it back and I got something absurd like a 125% with extra credit—and it was clear to me from experience that it's not that I was the best student in that class (I definitely was not) but that I had just happened to immediately see the best way to do this one particular proof. I had gotten lucky. In other words, my performance on that test had no predictive power when it came to my performance on future tests—and I knew it even then.
6 This is a bad example because if Chris Rock stopped being funny, people would still think he was hilariously funny for years and years—because most people's sense of humor is really a sense of the crowd's sense of humor, just another form of conformism, and "Chris Rock is funny" is a fact with power way beyond its actual description of the man's actual funniness. (Or, wait...maybe that makes it a really, really good example.)
7 Hi, I just finished watching all five seasons of Six Feet Under!

politics, now in glorious 2D!

The Political Compass, in case you haven't seen it, is based on the idea that the traditional, one-dimensional model for describing political belief is inadequate. We're all familiar with the cliché that the far left and the far right end up being difficult to distinguish from each other (and indeed they can both turn into totalitarianism*), which would suggest that our left–right system is less a line than it is a loop...in which case "left" and "right" are misnomers and the logic of the system practically destroys itself as soon as you switch it on.** Well, the Political Compass seeks to remedy this problem by limiting the left–right x axis to economic issues (such that an über-Kapitalist free-market deregulator would be right and a Marxist wealth-distributing nationalizer would be left) and adding a social y axis (where a liberal humanist would be down and a conservative authoritarian would be up). So now instead of being "left-wing," you're probably in the lower left-hand quadrant: a lefty libertarian, in other words.

But that's not why I called this meeting. One thing that's interesting about taking this test is that it can reveal to you which of your political opinions really matter to you and which are more positions than convictions. You've got four options for each question: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree. There is no neutrality, and there is no "Sort of Agree." As a result, clicking "Agree" can sometimes feel like a strange concession of ambivalence, and it sometimes even feels a little tough to be honest (even though the test is anonymous)—like, if some position you're asked to agree or disagree with is pretty offensive but isn't obviously crazy or wrong, you might sort of uneasily leave out the Strongly...and that's illuminating, in a way. The flipside of this is that some of the statements you'll feel very strongly about, such that the idea that someone could honestly answer differently from you seems outrageous.

I have decided to help out by providing the correct answers to some of these questions.*** If you get these wrong, then you need to fix yourself. [Note: these aren't all of my stronglys...they're more the strongly-stronglys, the what-are-you-crazys.**** I've also limited it somewhat to the ones I have something to say about.]

  • I'd always support my country, whether it was right or wrong. Um...seriously? I can understand agreeing with this if you're a nihilist, but you just know that a whole lot of religious people are going to see this and be like, "Yeah, exactly! AMERICA!" Think about this: whether it was right or wrong. If your country were wrong, you would support it. Example: flash forward a century or so and imagine that, oops, fascists have taken over all branches of government and America has launched a global campaign of ethnic cleansing. Or everybody's gone crazy and the plan is to destroy the planet with everyone on it. Assuming you do consider those scenarios to be "wrong," you're going to say, "Well, I guess I'd just have to support my country"? In effect what you are saying is, "My ethical system is based on one axiomatic rule: whatever my country does is correct." I'm not sure whether that's crazy or stupid, but it sure is immoral! Correct answer: Strongly Disagree.
  • Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public. Here it's not even so much "strongly-strongly" as it is bafflement. Who besides a business seeking to avoid penalty for misleading the public would disagree with this statement? I suppose if you think no one should ever be penalized for anything—if you're opposed to law and law enforcement? Or if you don't think businesses should have to obey the law? Or if you don't think the government should even exist? My guess is that the main disagreement anyone would have with this is the idea that it shouldn't be a crime to mislead the public. If you feel this way, then congratulations: you're a douchebag! Correct answer: Strongly Agree.
  • What's good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us. Is this a joke? Correct answer: Strongly Disagree.
  • You cannot be moral without being religious. If you agree with this statement, there isn't much I can say to persuade you. But rest assured, you are a big idiot. Correct answer: Strongly Disagree.
  • Sex outside marriage is usually immoral. This can pretty quickly devolve into a semantic argument: what is "moral"? Or maybe that's not devolution: in a way what the question is about is not sex, but rather morality. In effect what a statement like this says is that morality's primary concern is not the well-being of human individuals or any question of harm, cruelty, or kindness, but rather something more along the line of decorum or (more to the point) the prudish sensibilities of people who died thousands of years ago but managed to record their hysterical prejudices beforehand. Rule of thumb: if the best answer you can give to the question "Why is this immoral?" is "It says so right here," then you are not a moral person: you are a slave, and you'd probably be just as happy tied up in a box in an S&M club. (No offense to S&M folks: you guys are at least a lot more in touch with what you're into.) Correct answer: Strongly Disagree.

Anyway. Go take the test. When you're done, your results should look something like this:

If they don't, don't despair: do some serious thinking—maybe read Man for Himself—and give it another shot!***

* A word that, if I'm not mistaken, was coined by George Orwell to address exactly that concern: the ways in which Nazism and Stalinism went together.
** The logic of a system has an on–off switch.
*** I'm kidding about this. Sort of. (I'm opinionating again...probably in some indirect way because I had a bit of a rough Sunday afternoon.)
**** Random example: I strongly disagree with the statement "Abortion, when the woman's life is not threatened, should always be illegal," but I don't think it's outrageous or insane—just very wrong. You see the distinction? (I don't mean do you agree with me on this particular example—which if you don't I don't think you're crazy—which is sort of my whole point.)