Thursday, December 30, 2010

Questions? Concerns?

New to Alt85? Hungry for more Alt85 content, like Woody Allen boiling the cotton at the top of the pill bottle for extra aspirin, or like me in early 2005 playing Knights of the Old Republic because I couldn't wait for the Star Wars prequel I knew was going to disappoint me? Just bored and willing to click any link if given the gentlest prodding?

I've made a new attempt to introduce/explain/ease the Alt85 experience (replacing this craptastic gesture), and you can see it by clicking on "a user's guide" either on the right-hand side of the screen here or right back over there where I just said it earlier on in this very sentence.

And now you've got everything you need to take on the whole world. Let's do this thing!

ready to roll (via)

Appreciation Fest: True Grit by the Coen Bros.

Rooster Cogburn looks again.

Here's another in what's shaping up into sort of a series of excited "Great job!" posts. When I saw True Grit, my reaction was basically, "OK, not bad" (or, as Patton Oswalt said, "That'll do, TRUE GRIT. That'll do"—which I think is basically the same sentiment, although I may have misread it). But when I saw it again...

Maybe a quarter of the way through, I said to myself, "I am liking this three, maybe four times more than I liked it the first time around"—and I enjoyed thinking that this might in fact actually be quantifiable, in a not meaningless (although of course very rough) sense—but then, before I could get much further in calculating how much more I liked it, I realized, "Whoops: I just love it. This is just a great movie."

The experience is almost identical to the experience I had with The Big Lebowski, which, the first time around, I thought had amazing and enjoyable parts and aspects but was, overall, not good—didn't "work" as a movie, I think was my verdict. Then I saw it again and loved it, and every time since I've loved it even more. True Grit went in my mind from being fine to being excellent. With The Big Lebowski, my theory always was that the plot is just weird enough and just subversive enough, of our expectations, that the movie is somewhat baffling and frustrating the first time through and actually feels sloppy, whereas once you know what's going to happen, you can focus on what in the movie actually matters, at which point the whole thing is basically just genius all around (narrative included). That might have been going on with True Grit, too—indeed I'm sure it was—but there's another element to it, probably more important, that I think can go back and apply to (and illuminate) my Big Lebowski experience, as well:

First time in, I watched True Grit in this way: focusing primarily on the events, on the wittiness of the story and the dialogue, and on the writing as aesthetic, you could say. Second time in, I watched it this way: focusing primarily on the characters, on the relationships between them, and on the writing as storytelling. And not only does the movie work better on those levels, but it actually works rather wonderfully on those levels: it was almost as if it didn't even occur to me, the first time through, to see these characters as real people or the story as a real story, almost as if I just expected the whole thing to be a cartoon and didn't think to look below the surface. "Almost as if." I believe that's what it was.

[SIDE NOTE: Another element to it was the adaptation question. I think there are two main ways to judge an adaptation: based on faithfulness (by which metric Kubrick's version of The Shining is only so-so) and based on what you might call success...but of course my choice of words here makes it pretty stupidly obvious what my bias has become. Adaptation is a work of translation, and translation is so much an act of reimagining that you might even see it—as someone I follow on Twitter (but whose tweets are I think "protected") recently said—as a form of fan fiction. I don't think True Grit is as true to the novel as it could have been, or as at first I understood it as being. But once it's freed up from that actually somewhat arbitrary restriction and is allowed just to be a good movie based on the novel, then you start to see how great it is on its own terms. And only Stephen King and his most zealous fans could really find too much fault with Kubrick's version of The Shining because no one but them could care that much about the sanctity of the original text. Based on is the operative concept. These movies are based on the books: they're not trying to be the books magically transformed into motion-picture form. To be clear: in fact I think True Grit is a relatively faithful adaptation, but I don't think it's as successful on that level as it is elsewhere.]

BAD GUMP (see below)

Three fairly arbitrarily selected thoughts about the movie, this second, passionate go-round [SPOILER ALERT]:
  • Tom Chaney, as portrayed by Brand Walsh, is Forrest Gump without the goodness-of-heart. Take Forrest, dump him in the Wild West, mistreat him as a child and give him no values, and what have you got? Basically a dangerous monster who's at the same time a deeply pathetic and sorry figure.
  • When Rooster shoots the horse, that is the only moment of Mattie Ross's childhood. Do you understand what I mean when I say that? Among other things, it's the only moment in which the two characters' relationship is plainly that of an adult and a child.
  • The line about how LaBoeuf "spills the banks of English" is, I immediately thought, flat-out Shakespearean. I don't mean that as praise, even: we treat Shakespeare as somehow more than human, but it's just that he was a very, very good writer—and, more to the point here, a very good writer with a particular sensibility, and what I'm saying isn't that "spills the banks of English" is transcendence poetic genius but that it is—well, just what I said: Shakespearean. You could see it in Hamlet. Whatever, I don't have to prove myself to you: when I Googled it to make sure I had the words right, I found some British person saying it was Shakespearean. (A British person! Q.E.D., motherfuckers!)
[Actually, that last point ends up being less about True Grit appreciation than it is about something interesting to me in itself: what is it about the style of the line that reminds me and that other guy of Shakespeare? Actually what I said right after seeing the movie again was that line was "on the same level of writing, or in the same category, as James Joyce or William Shakespeare." Joyce, too, hit that sometimes. You understand that I'm not exactly talking about genius so much as I am about feel—or maybe quality of prose? That—that feel or quality—is fascinating to me. Exciting, too. Good writing, man! You go!]

Anyway, I went from "meh" to out-and-out loving this movie. I'll see it again, you can bet, and—without actually thinking about it at all—I'm inclined to say that this is one of the Coens' top five. I'm delighted by it. The Super Coen Bros. have rescued the princess.

Remember this scene? Great scene!!

Monday, December 27, 2010

mixed messages

Two ads on the same wall of the same subway car:

(Please click to enlarge.)

It's really just the juxtaposition I wanted to note, but here are a couple of other little notes:

The first of the two ads—the one that suggests that snoring might be something you can put up with, not the one that suggests that snoring can kill you—appears to have been paid for by a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The other ad, let me note, earns a "fuck this ad" label for listing dire consequences of snoring that—unless I'm mistaken—are in fact things that can result (but won't necessarily result) not from snoring itself, but from the sleep deprivation that can be caused (but won't necessarily be caused) by sleep apnea, which, by the way, is not synonymous with snoring, as the sentence structure asserts, but is instead one thing of which some snoring might be (but isn't necessarily) symptomatic.

In other words, the way snoring might kill you is a distant causal chain beginning with a possible association that the ad treats as definitionally necessary. In short, the Madison Sleep Center ad people are manipulators and liars. Sounds like the kind of folks I want handling my health care!

Remember kids: don't get body snatched.

[Ho, boy—this is a dense one.]

The pod-person scream is one of the great innovations of the 1978 Body Snatchers remake. Another—and here I'm comparing it to the original Jack Finney novel, not to the 1956 film starring RJ Fletcher, although only because I don't adequately remember that first film—is the fact that at no point in this story does the main character even begin to consider that being replaced by a pod person means anything for the original human being other than death.

The impression I get (slash, fantasy I have) while reading the novel, which explicitly discusses the pod people as a kind of interstellar parasite, is that the original idea must have been an organism that essentially possesses the human host and takes control of it, but that Jack Finney had the excellent idea that actually seeing replacement humans growing was so creepy that it had to be included. Trouble is, those replacement humans screw up the also-excellent (and otherwise very compelling) question of whether, at a certain point, you might as well just give up fighting and go along with the invasion.

In the novel, the narrator says, "the idea of sleep, of just dropping my problems and letting go; letting sleep pour through me, and then waking up, feeling just the same as I did now, still Miles Bennell—it was shocking to realize how terribly tempting the idea was" (the main objection he has seeming to be that he doesn't want to lose his humanity, which amounts mainly to his no longer experiencing fear, hatred, or love). What's shocking to me is that he doesn't question for a second the idea that he will wake up. In the 1978 movie, it's made explicitly clear (as is already fairly clear in the logic of the novel) that the old you shrivels up and crumble into dust, and a new you, grown from a pod, would rise up and start acting like you. In what meaningful sense you, then, are waking up as that new pod I have trouble fathoming.

This is only a minor modification of this question, but that question became renewedly interesting to me when I not only was reminded that intelligent people disagree about it, but also discovered that a (disagreeing, intelligent) friend and I each thought the other was the one who was indulging in magical thinking and who clearly believed in a soul.

I found this fascinating because while I can imagine someone taking the opposite side from mine—saying that, yes, if a duplicate of you were created, so perfectly that its brain was an exact replica of yours, right down to every synapse and electrical charge, such that that new "you" had exactly your memories and personality and emotions and consciousness, then that new you would be you, not just in some kind of theoretical, "for all intents and purposes" sense, but in every sense (and that if I said, "I'll give you $5 if you get in this machine that will build a new you and disintegrate the old you," there would be no reason for you not to get in the machine because why turn down $5)—while I don't think it's crazy to believe that, my impulse was certainly to assume that this was because the person believing that must think that some incorporeal essence must jump from one body to the other, some consciousness-as-magical-force: a soul, in short. And yet here was my friend saying that I was the one who seemed to think there was some magical soul and that he was the one being reasonable and materialistic.

My position, the truth of which to me seems crystal clear and sharply defined like HD, is that creating a new you—no matter how perfect the duplication, and whether it's a pod person or a clone or the "teleported" you—has no bearing whatsoever on the original you because the original you is an organism, and whatever happens elsewhere, whatever other identical organisms you create, if you disintegrate the original organism, then that organism dies. And I believe that consciousness is something going on in an organism's brain, and if that brain dies, the consciousness dies. And I believe that if I create a duplicate of something, then those two things might be identical, might be indistinguishable from each other, but they are still two distinct things, not a single thing, and the existence or nonexistence of the one does not in itself determine the existence or nonexistence of the other.

To me, all the above is fairly concerete, materialistic, and logically sound: really all I'm saying is that consciousness is a nonmagical property of a physical object, and there is no magical connection between that physical object and any duplicates, no matter how perfect. So how am I the one believing in magic?

My friend, it seemed to me—if he did not believe that some kind of soul would jump from one body to the other—must believe one of two things: either

  1. consciousness is so incidental, so meaningless, that our experience of experiencing things is itself an illusion, and there is literally no difference, for anyone, including us, between our experiencing them and an identical mind experiencing them—which to me seems like an instance of the philosophical-theoretical crowding out material reality, a sort of exaggerated hyper-objectivity that can lead a person to take into account everyone but himself—or, similarly but much more reasonably (in my view),
  2. maybe in some way that's hard for me to wrap my mind around and hard for me to believe, consciousness, while a function of the purely physical, isn't for any particular reason bound to one place—not in a magical way, whereby something is in any sense moving around, but just in that all it is is a collection of concepts that, when thrown together, equal your consciousness, equaling it 100%, such that what it is for you to feel something would be there as well...?
Anyway, I feel like I ended up coming to a kind of resolution, and it lies in the idea—some kind of quantum-physics thing, maybe even the, I know, much-misidentified Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—that you can know either the identity of something or the position of that thing but never both at once...and frankly I (a) don't really understand that idea, (b) don't necessarily accept it on faith, and indeed (c) tend to think it might be one of those things where pure intellectual theory passes for a description of physical reality in a way that's effectively baloney...but I also know that very smart people think this is true and don't assume I know more than they do, and anyway, whether it's true or not is actually irrelevant because it was the concept that actually got through to me:

Oftentimes, I find, when two rational and intelligent people cannot find common ground on a disagreement, it's either because (a) they're not really having the same conversation—a question of the defining of terms—or because (b) the question being asked is fundamentally flawed.

In a very different context, I recently used this metaphor when giving a friend advice: "You know in high school when you'd be laboring way too long on some Math problem for homework, like the whole assignment was supposed to take 45 minutes and you'd already spent 20 minutes on this one question with nine more questions to go—and it turned out that you were on the wrong page of the textbook: like you were in 11th grade and you were trying to solve a 12th-grade problem? In that case, the answer you were looking for was: 'I'm looking at the wrong question.'"

I think that the reason why my friend and I disagreed—and the reason why each of us thought the other was basing his argument on some sense of a magical soul—was that the question is based on a fundamental impossibility. And I don't mean an impossibility like we lack the technology: I mean an impossibility like this is something that literally cannot be in any sense.

A "you" so exactly you that it really was you couldn't be an alien simulating your body but with new motivation and knowledge and slightly altered personality. Nor could that new you really be in a different place—because if a duplicate you were created right next to you and the original you immediately ceased to be, with consciousness continuing uninterrupted, then the new you would have a vision jump and would not in fact be the same you. The trouble with the "What if the machine malfunctioned and both of you were alive at the same time?" objection is that, in that case, the two of you would not truly be the same. And can two objects not only be identical but exist in the same place at the same time? At a certain point, is the identical-vs.-same distinction I mentioned above no longer a semantic problem but actually flat out meaningless?

If it is not the same, it is not the same. If it is the same, it is the same.

Maybe my friend thought I was being magical in my thinking because he was like, "How can you say that two things that are the same are not the same unless some magical property resides in one of them?"—while I was thinking, "How can you think that two things are the same when they are not the same unless some magical property is transferred from one to the other?"

You are an organism. There is one of you. If you die, you die, whether or not something that looks and acts like you shows up, and even if it thinks it's you. But if it is you, then (a) you're probably not dead, and (b) what the hell are we talking about?

This seems satisfactory to me now but probably will make no sense to me if I reread it. BUT WILL THAT ME REREADING IT REALLY BE ME??*

This mist isn't going to be you no matter what shape it takes.

* Yes.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

the very end of A Serious Man by the Coen Bros. [SPOILER ALERT]

[Maybe this blog will turn into a huge appreciation fest, like my ecstatic Community Christmas special ravings or my Sgt. Pepper "live-blog." Probably better than the fight-picking stuff I sometimes wind up putting up here. Well, here's a gesture in the "yay!" direction.]

This in a goy's mouth, Gottlieb!

The moment that Larry changes his student's grade, his phone rings with bad news from his doctor, a tornado bears down on his son, and...blackout. Basically, our beleaguered antihero makes his choice, and then, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, movie's over. I love it. Love it! I think it's brilliant, and I think it's hilarious. I explained my position on the subject to my imaginary friend "Gottlieb" a while back, but he forgot what I said. Here it is again.

1. Text messages

"Gottlieb": Ari and i just watched a serious man again. He'd never seen it. You told me what it's about. Remind me. He changed the grade, did a wrong, and damned himself?

S.R.: Yes, but the key to THAT is that of course it's a kind of parody or satire. We'll tawk.

"Gottlieb": I don't understand and it angers me. There should be an epilogue. I am American. I need to be spoon fed.

S.R.: On one level it's a very basic morality story: will he give in to temptation and abandon God? That story is profoundly complicated by the fact that WE and IT do not in fact believe -- essentially it's an atheist movie, I think -- which takes what on a very straightforward level FUNCTIONS as a morality tale and turns it into dark comedy. When "God punishes him," I think we're to understand on the most literal-available level that that's not REALLY true...or it's true in reality of the plot, but we and the movie don't really believe it. Why am I texting all this to you and not e-mailing?

"Gottlieb": So it's a put on? I see.

S.R.: I wouldn't exactly call it that. He is punished by God. But that's like a red-herring moral. We'll talk.

"Gottlieb": I don't understand it. I don't want to talk. I want the answer.


S.R.: It's the moral/comic equivalent of the scary-movie gesture of, "See? There's nothing under your bed. Now try to let Mommy and Daddy get a little slee-AAAAAAAAA!!!"
     The whole movie is a dark-comic exploration of the ABSURDITY of the world or of this religion's ridiculous attempts to explain it, and we DO care whether he holds on to his principles but aren't sure we're right that it makes any difference (you should like this: nihilism vs value), and that in the end his decision is met with IMMEDIATE, concrete, "Old Testament" retribution is a hilarious, arguably absurdist joke: after all this moral subtlety and ambiguity and probable meaninglessness, it turns out that, yes, God is watching you with his finger on the holy trigger?
     Funny. It's funny.

"Gottlieb": I said to ari as he was changing the grade, "does anyone care that he's changing the grade? I mean, after all this, are we supposed to be ambivalent about this?"

S.R. I think where I was/am when he starts to change the grade—and where I believe the Coen Bros. want you to be—is somewhere in this constellation:
  • he probably shouldn't do this
  • but that's a moral thing and morality is probably bunk
  • and also, real, practical good will come of this as opposed to something on the level of mere principle
  • except that he's surrendering something inside of himself, which is probably a bad thing, no matter how silly or not silly the principle
  • although you could also see it as a positive step, his transcending this ridiculous, very small, simpleminded religion (in the version he knows of it)
  • all of which adds up, wherever you fall in that question, to the whole thing's being really a personal, psychological, existential thing rather than anything to do with religion or God—
—at which point God smites him. That's what I call a punchline!


[NOTE REGARDING THE SPOILER: Am I doing exactly what I said never to do here? Yes and no. No because it isn't in the theaters anymore and I said, "SPOILER ALERT." Yes because, yes, I am.]

grammar at the Arclight

Spider-Man, turn off the weird coincidences!

As I was sitting in my seat the Arclight the other night at about midnight,* this guy came up to me—I don't know how old, older than me ["than I." –ed.]—and, I swear to God, he said to me, "Hey, can I ask you a grammar question?" I said, "I gotta tell you, you're asking the right guy," which is frankly obnoxious, uncharacteristically so, but, seriously, what are the odds? How many people in the Arclight at that moment knew and cared as much about grammar as I do? I mean, I'm a freak when it comes to grammar. His answer was, "Well, you're reading a book." And I was, fine, but what he didn't know was that it was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so that hardly means anything. (Sample prose: "Becky has a fine, beautifully fleshed skeleton.")

Anyway, what this guy wanted to know was whether a shitload of Toyotas were in the parking lot or a shitload of Toyotas was in the parking lot. I told him that there are group nouns that technically ought to be singular but are treated as plural—they might be "collective nouns" (terminology's always been my grammatical Achilles heel, as I've mentioned here before)—such that really you could go either way: although group is singular, a group of men can be treated as plural.

And I remembered right (of course). Here's what the wonderful Dictionary of Modern American Usage (which this weird event I'm describing just finally inspired me to get out of a box, almost a year after moving—one of my favorite books, note, in my "A" box) has to say about it:
Apart from the desire for consistency, there is little "right" and "wrong" on this subject: collective nouns take sometimes a singular and sometimes a plural verb. The trend in AmE [American English] is to regard the collective noun as expressing a unit; hence, the singular is the usual form... Just the opposite habit generally obtains in BrE [British English]... In the days after the American Revolution, not surprisingly, American practice was closer to the prevailing British practice... The reversal in practice has become so firmly established in AmE that it is hardly wrong to say that with certain collective nouns, singular verbs are preferred. But you can't be doctrinaire on this point of usage.
Sure enough, a minute after telling this guy that you could go either way (and therefore helping no one with the bet), I then actually got up and walked over to where he and his friends were sitting to say, "I'd actually probably go with 'There is a shitload'" (much to the delight of his friends, who I gather had put their money on the singular). I also noted that shitload's being slang sort of throws the whole thing off—or rather at least makes the concept of a "right" answer that much sillier.

[An interesting side note† is that, indeed, what the guy asked was not whether you'd say "a shitload of Toyotas is," as I reported at first, but rather whether you'd say, "is a shitload of Toyotas"—which is worth noting just because in fact I think I'd go with the singular for the one and the plural for the other: there is a shitload of Toyotas in the parking lot, but a shitload of Toyotas are in the parking lot. And I suppose this would suggest that the choice is largely aesthetic.‡]

In conclusion, I am a particular species of weirdo nerd.

"They tell me you are a man with true grammatical grit."

FOOTNOTES [I've been trying to do this less, but what are ya gonna do?]
True Grit—enjoyed it but didn't love it. (Actually I sort of wished I hadn't read the book because there were bits that were really funny in the book and I bet would have been really funny in the movie, too, if I hadn't already known the joke in advance.)
† That I think this is interesting (and I really do!) just drives home my point about how frankly bizarre it is that this total stranger chose me to ask his grammar question out of everybody there.
‡ You might instead argue that a lot of number-agreement problems come from just this sort of thing, thinking the noun closest to the verb is the subject when instead it's the object of a preposition, and that maybe all this really proves is that it's hippie bullshit to say that "shitload are" ever is acceptable. But come on. (And if you really did call that "hippie bullshit," then I think you and I should just drop the argument and have a good laugh and maybe hug each other because, let's both be honest, that's pretty adorable.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Amazon gets it backwards.

This is not offensive:
the official cover art

This is offensive:
the Amazon download version's cover art

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"I just watched the Community Christmas special A THIRD TIME."

[This e-mail correspondence continues.]

S.R.: It's basically perfect. I've become fanatic about it: they're going to have to tase me (LIKE THEY TASE ABED IN THE BEGINNING OF THE CHRISTMAS EPISODE). How about how amazing it is, the combination of the way Abed is "driving" the fantasy and trying to bring his friends into it (going along with the psychiatric role-play only because he realizes it will work perfectly for his needs) because he needs for various reasons (basic character, upsetting news from his mom) to think of what's going on as if it were a Christmas special, AND the show's decision to depict this by treating it as if it IS a Christmas special? That's basically what's going on: the way the show chose to tell the story about a character's desperate but brilliant attempt to Christmas-special his life is to let him have what he wants. And of course they're not really in stop-motion, except that of course yes they are because, in fact, quite literally, that is what's going on in the episode as it was shot...
     But in the end the real kicker is that the feelings I have about it are the feelings I would have (if uncritically and uncynically open to it) while watching a "real" Christmas special: I am sincerely thrilled by the triumph of goodness in the end and everybody's coming around and learning a lesson about the spirit of Christmas.
     I am kidding about none of this.
     Oh, and as far as funny, what about when they're singing about what Christmas is (and please NOTE that everything they sing is in fact a pretty true and real stab at what Christmas actually is to people*) and when it's Shirley's turn, she goes, in full black-woman gospel-belter mode, "And for a huge percentage of this god-fearing planet it's about the birth of Jesus Christ!"

W.R.: Seriously why don't you marry the community Christmas special. Take it out to a nice dinner and open doors for it. Then, about a year into your marriage, go to Ikea with the community Christmas special and get some cute new bookshelves. And then in the car on the way home you two can laugh and laugh about how funny the Swedish names are. After that you should fingerbang your wife, The community christmas special, and talk about how you don't do that as much as you did when you started dating. Then you should lobby congress to see if you could marry the community Christmas special somehow again. And the clerk on the phone will ask you, "do you mean you want to renew your vows?" And really politely you should say no to that guy and explain that what you really want is a second, additional marriage to your life partner, your wife, the community Christmas special. There may be some confusion at this point, because the clerk cant see any real benefits to this second, redundant marriage. You should awknowledge to the clerk and to the supervisor (who you'll inevitably also speak to) that you realize that what you want is not currently legal but you are willing to take this matter all the way to the supreme court just because of how much you love your wife. Then the clerk, Earl, will probably attend to some other affairs before he catches the 9:41 train out of shittown.

[I like my friends.]

* This clip is not long for this world, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

something new

"Allow me to break the ice."

Rejoice!—for the era of the Alt85 spin-off blog has finally come. For a while there, as some die-hard lunatics may recall, I was under pressure to start a Fuck This Ad blog—and if it was dumb that the main reason I didn't was that I didn't want to call it anything other than "Fuck This Ad" and was told that I basically couldn't call it "Fuck This Ad," then, very well, it was dumb.* Anyway, I don't do that stuff as much anymore because I'm not on subways and subway platforms and walking past bills on post-no-bills constructions sites as much anymore, so that day has passed. But now I've done it another way:† behold the glory of—

—where I try, from memory, to summarize movies I've seen but don't actually remember. (And I don't cheat: there are pictures, but I find those only after writing the text.) This is good fun for me, and other humans seem to enjoy it pretty well, too, so check in and check often. [At first there will be some material on there that some of you may have seen before, but that will fairly quickly be washed away by a flood of fresh, new idiocy.]

I've also started another spin-off blog for the auto-bioey fansSpecial Factoids [this link may not work yet, depending on when you're clicking on it]. Special Factoids, I hasten to note, is not for everyone: essentially it's a Mezzanine-influenced exercise in making (rather, trying to make) the obsessively, exhaustively, nakedly, ludicrously autobiographical [a noun, in context] interesting, or at least readable—and how successful it is will be up to you (and to HISTORY!) to determine.

I have innumerable blogs. You don't know the half of 'em. My Internet presence is like ice-nine.

* It was.
† Unclear.

our secular Satan

It's big now to condemn Hitler references. Counterargument: the greatest trick fascism ever pulled was convincing the world it died with the Nazis.

They're so cute when they're little.

[This rather humorless piece I started in Jun. 2005 and never finished...very possibly because of its grimness; I don't remember. (I also don't remember the specific context, but the gist is pretty well self-evident.) I have mixed feelings about posting it, but it's something I often want to express, so what the hell. GO GO GADGET DEVIL'S ADVOCATE!]

To Jon Stewart, in Defense of Comparing People to Hitler

Most Hitler references do indeed demean both the argument and, as you joked, Hitler himself (in the sense of his importance as a historical lesson). But to come out against Hitler references across the board is to come out against learning from history.

There are two contexts in which comparing a person to Hitler or a group to the Nazis can be worthwhile.

First, in a political–philosophical context, Hitler can be used quite sanely and appropriately to point out the flaw in an argument or position. In philosophical discourse, it's reasonable to jump to an extreme in order to test out a claim—because if something cannot function in extreme cases, it ought not to be taken for a general principle. For example, if I say one must never under any circumstance lie, you might ask me what I would do if I were hiding Jews in my basement and the Gestapo came to my door asking if I was hiding any Jews—that sort of thing. Similarly, if someone were to say that one must always support your president whether or not you agree with his policies, you might respond, "What if the president were Adolf Hitler?" The point in both cases is not that all lies betray Jews to genocide or that our current president is in fact Adolf Hitler, but rather that the suggested principle cannot hold up as a general rule.

Second, and more importantly, Hitler can be brought up as a historical reference point. Imagine a situation in which a political party did in fact threaten to turn our country into a totalitarian regime. Imagine, say, that a president running for reelection was under fire for scrapping the Bill of Rights and defended himself by pointing out that everything was running much more smoothly under his more authoritarian leadership than it had. Isn't it in fact a shame that any comparisons to Fascism and the trains running on time would surely be denounced as inappropriate? Unless we really believe that Hitler was a totally isolated incident in human history and that we never have to worry about such crimes again, how can we say that his name must never be raised in opposition to potential tyranny?

I think the confusion is due to the two biggest mistakes we make about Hitler. The first mistake is to think of him as the embodiment of evil. Certainly the man was evil if the word "evil" has any meaning at all, but people seem to have the tendency to think of him not as an evil person, but almost as evil in human form—our secular Satan. This rather simple-minded way of seeing things serves pretty well to prevent our citizenry from casually saying, "Hey, this Hitler guy seems pretty neat," but at the same time it makes it very hard for most of us to imagine how he might have come to power, why the Germans might have liked him, or indeed that such a thing ever actually happened in the real world—in other words, it makes it hard for us to be on the lookout for future Hitlers. As long as we see him as nothing but evil incarnate, we're totally blind to the ways someone who looks a little different from Hitler might end up doing just about the same thing. (You don't necessarily have to have that little mustache, for example.)

The second mistake is to equate the evil of Nazism with the evil of the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust was the Nazis' greatest crime. Yes, it is because of the Holocaust that they are most reviled. But far too often I find that people are in fact incapable of understanding why the Nazis might be incredibly bad news even aside from the "final solution." This careless thinking is particularly dangerous because it threatens to open a door through which fascism could enter our government so long as it wasn't anti-Semitic or racist. I'm Jewish myself, but I have no fear that an anti-Semitic uprising in the U.S. could lead to an American Holocaust; I can, however, imagine America's ceasing to be a democracy, and that's what scares me.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All your questions will be answered, one by one.

the chicken

Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
A. The egg. Next question?

Seriously, though: unless you're a creationist, this one shouldn't be such a mystery to everyone. Chickens hatch from eggs, yes? Right. The question comes from the idea that, well, yes, but a chicken had to have laid that egg. Only problem there, though, is that whatever laid the egg with the first chicken in it has to have been ever so slightly pre-chicken, evolutionarily, yes? Because once that egg is laid, it's got its genes all set up in there—mutated slightly, is I gather how it would work, but not mutating, which means that any evolutionary change has to happen in between chicken and egg, not in between egg and chicken, which in turn means that if you're going to draw the evolutionary cut-off anywhere between chicken and evolutionary pre-chicken—anywhere at all in there—then that line is going to be drawn somewhere in between a chicken and an egg.  So at a certain point there's an egg with no chicken before it.

Of course if you believe God created all animals in their current states at the beginning of time, then, sure, you might wonder whether God created an egg that hatched into a chicken or just created a chicken—but even then, that's not so much a brain-teaser as it is just a historical fact that you happen not to know. (Also, come on.)

So let's stop using this question as way of communicating total insoluble uncertainty—because really what it communicates is a question for which there is an answer if you think about it for 10 seconds.

the egg

This one goes out to all the princesses.

"Me? Little normal old CGI preternaturally Disney-beautiful me?"

Watching Tangled yesterday afternoon, I found myself wondering what the effect is of our culture's tendency to show kids so many stories about young people who find out later in life that, all this time, they've actually been royalty: "Guess what: you're secretly a princess, and one day you'll be reunited with your real family—not these dumb assholes—and you'll rule the land!" Strip away the royalty element (or, more to the point, treat it as a species of metaphor), and what you've got is: "You are not just another dumb asshole, just another meaningless piece of dirt, just another person: you are more than that, better, and more important—the star of the whole damned narrative!"

I am far from the first person to note all that, of course. But I think I'm probably slightly less far from the first person to note this-here: I'm not entirely sure that all that is necessarily bad.

Traditionally, or at least for the past decade, I've taken for granted that the (as I understand it) relatively new tack of telling kids that they "can be anything" and "can do anything" is essentially misguided and effectively poisonous: see Alec Sulkin's take on the subject here. But then Alec Sulkin writes for Family Guy and dated Sarah Silverman and, according to Wikipedia, is about to get his own show on Fox, so things seem objectively to have worked out pretty OK for him, making that tweet not entirely a great example—or maybe it's a perfect example, just not of what we thought.

What I've started to wonder—and this is all still a question, I want to note: I've come to no conclusions about it—is whether teaching kids that they are way more important than any kid (even a prince or princess) might in fact be...good for their mental health? In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil wrote that people "must believe that they are something more than they are in order to be capable of being what they are." And from the perspective of an atheist, it seems clear that the concept of God and the role of religion are effectively important insofar as they counterbalance the tendency for a sense of perspective to make us feel like nothing, to make us conclude that we just plain don't matter. From an atheist's perspective, believing in a God who loves you may just be a way of not succumbing to a sense of personal worthlessness.

So maybe being told stories, as a child, about children who are secretly royalty—and being told that you're special—really just ends up correcting for a pretty natural downward slant in our sense of selves once we realize that we're one in a billion (but literally, not in the good way where you're a stand-out, unique, spectacular one in a billion, but just—you know—one in a billion, like one grain of sand on the beach). Maybe we need to think of ourselves as important, not because we're kings and queens, but because we are important, at least as important as every other human being—including, I'd argue, kings and queens (although of course, yes, that depends what you mean by "important": I mean it more existentially and essentially and inherently)—and that's easy to forget.

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox is placed in a device that is meant to overwhelm him with the inconceivable hugeness of the universe and his inconceivable smallness in it, and the point of the device is basically a kind of execution because everyone who goes into it is driven insane to the point of vegetative nonresponsiveness—but when they put him in it, he strolls back out afterwards in typically good spirits, and when they ask him, thunderstruck, what happened, he says something like, "It showed me what I already knew: that I'm the center of the universe."

And, now, I'm playing devil's advocate here and have been doing so throughout, but isn't part of the reason that's funny that—in a certain sense and from a certain point of view—it's always true?

Sam Rockwell was the best part of this movie, right? Am I remembering that right?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

I watched the Community Christmas special twice in 24 hours and loved it so much that I had a dream last night that I was becoming friends with Danny Pudi and he and I were playing around kid-style like Troy and Abed. Anyway, I gather (from the tepid response to a Facebook status update) that not everyone has had the same passionate response, so I include here, in its entirety, an attempt I made to explain what I loved about the thing. A very good friend had just texted me, "Literally watched it again this AM, based on your review. Upgraded to 'good'. Not sure I'll ever get to mindblown, but I also have bad taste!" (he's a joker), and this is—complete with any embarrassing typos or weird phrasing I may have made, because I'm not going back and proofreading or editing it—what I wrote right back via e-mail:

Here's what I liked about it.
  1. Actually IS a Christmas special, while parodying Christmas specials.
  2. Similarly, actually is [same], while commenting upon [same].
  3. Does the ambiguous-reality/levels-of-reality thing, which I enjoy when done well, and
  4. managed not to compromise the reality of the show in doing so, which is cool, but
  5. did NOT rely entirely on the "this isn't actually happening" cop out because
  6. what was "happening" in the "fantasy" was 100% straight-up a metaphor for what was actually happening in the reality on an emotional/intellectual level, such that
  7. metaphor, fantasy, and reality were (a) perfect entwined, (b) perfectly in harmony, and (c) almost but not entirely indistinguishable from each other.
  8. Oh, and it actually made my cynical heart feel Christmassy. The idea of the longest, darkest nights (i.e., winter) being the brightest and warmest is flat-out ingenious (and if the writers made that up instead of referencing something, they should win the Pulitzer Prize), but more generally, Abed's idea about Christmas meaning what it means to you made me realize what Christmas means to me: TV Christmas specials.
In short, all the craziness of the episode is entirely not gratuitous, the writing is brilliant, and the damned thing gave me an infusion of Christmas spirit like I haven't experienced since I was a wide-eyed credulous child watching cartoon characters ice skate and prance through fresh snow.

    Friday, December 10, 2010

    quiet orgy of appreciation

    Here are some things I'm excited about, in bold:

    I got to see Patton Oswalt at the Aimee Mann Christmas Show last night at Largo, all of which was very good, but so that Patton Oswalt, man, I'll tell you—he's the comedian who most consistently over the years—ever since I first saw him on Dr. Katz in the '90s—has made me cry laughing, like with me literally dabbing away tears from my eyes and cheeks and even neck sometimes (highlights over the years including but certainly not limited to the Carvel ice-cream bit, the Alvin & the Chipmunks bit, and the Toronto open-mic bit). And Paul F. Tompkins, also at the thing last night, is a new favorite of mine, just so fucking funny all the fucking time—what the hell?—and specifically brilliant with the off-the-cuff hilarity: I've seen Dead Authors at UCB a number of times, and even when it isn't as good, he is always amazing (as H.G. Wells).

    My focus at this thing, clearly, was the comedy, but I want also to comment on a particular stand-out surprise highlight, which shouldn't have been a surprise: Aimee Mann's husband, Michael Penn, who I had heard from reliable sources was an amazing songwriter but hadn't actually, you know, heard, turns out to be, yes, an amazing songwriter, and his first song, in particular, literally knocked my socks off: they just blasted off my feet, through my nice leather shoes, and through the air and onto the stage like some enthusiastic female fan's underpants. (That's not true, obviously: I'm sure no one there could have mistaken socks for women's underwear.)

    Michael Penn*
    I will confess to not having been over-familiar with Aimee Mann's music, and today I got ahold [I can't get it through my head that ahold is not a word, and this is because of the now-familiar English major's curse of knowing words that were words once and now can be found only in the OED] of I'm with Stupid, which I'm enjoying very much but which I don't like writing because the with needs to have a lowercase W but that looks weird in a three-word title. Anyway, because of this Christmas show, I wasn't able to watch the new Community, which is probably my favorite show at the moment—that or Friday Night Lights (I'm on season two, which I'm told is the worst and is still really good)—and the good news there is that I still get to: I'm seriously actively excited to watch that shit whenever I end up getting to, whenever that may be. I guess that's it. Oh, and hooray for girls! Sorry if that makes me gay, but whatever, I like 'em.


    * FALSE

    Thursday, December 9, 2010

    Yeah, Los Angeles!

    I was going to just have that be my whole commentary—"Yeah, Los Angeles!" (or possibly, "YEAH, Los Angeles," not so much for emphasis as to communicate the particular tone I heard when I said it in my head")—but I figure it's more in keeping with the spirit of this blog to take a moment to elaborate.

    You could say that what I like about Sean Farrell's caption here is that it's kind of the opposite of the caption I laid into in my latest outburst, here: instead of essentially just identifying "the unusual thing" (and saying, "What is this chick, drunk?" by way of a joke), the toenails caption responds to the unusual thing in the cartoon by (1) making the eminently reasonable assumption that we've all noticed it—yes, he's on the ceiling, good, go on—and then (2) commenting on it by not commenting on it, by glaringly ignoring it and acting like it isn't especially unusual.

    Is the result brilliant comedy? Nah. I didn't LOL or anything. But, to me, "Now that you're up there on the ceiling, I've noticed that your feet are nasty," is just on a whole different level of comedy from, "What are you doing up there on the ceiling?! What is going on?" (Actually, that would be pretty funny, but only because I wrote it to be self-parodying and it's therefore not a very good example—fuck me, I blew it.) I've actually always wanted a caption like this (see here and here), and here it is, and— Well, same sky, same ticking clock, and it looks like I still can't move shit around with my mind, so I guess it's back to the old living block* with me.


    * Living block? –ed.

    Sunday, December 5, 2010

    "Surely you can't be serious, Mr. Scott." "I am serious...I am serious." [UPDATED]

    I took a screenshot of this in case they change it:

    A.O. Scott, who has the distinction of being one of the first film critics who blew my mind with how consistently wrong I thought he was [q.v.], quotes Airplane! incorrectly above. (First joke of the whole obit!)

    When I saw "I'm serious" (see screenshot), my first thought was, "Huh, I'm pretty sure it's 'I am serious'"—but my second thought was to doubt myself because (a) people often do misremember very famous movie lines (maybe because they end up remembering not the line itself but other people endlessly referencing the line, which has much the same effect as sound deterioration when copying audio cassettes*), an example, itself famous, being, "Play it again, Sam"; (b) The New York Times does have a fact-checking department (right?); and (c) the reason you see that the quotation is underlined is that there's a link to a YouTube video: could The New York Times honestly not only be careless enough not to fact-check an article but also then have the oblivious audacity to link directly from a factual error to a video demonstrating the error?

    Yes. Not only that, but the video they link to has subtitles.

    I'm baffled—or I would be if I haven't already seen so much evidence† that magazines and newspapers with the highest reputations for journalistic reliability and integrity clearly don't give an eighth of a shit about getting their facts straight when popular culture is involved. Still, linking to your own refutal is an (inadvertently) amazing move.‡

    [IMPORTANT NOTES: (1) I blame Scott, who just misremembered, less than I do The Times, whose responsibility it was to rely on more than Scott's or their own memories, and (2) what bothers me most of all is the implicit disrespect ("Oh, who cares what the line is?"): yes, it's a comedy, but its existence and content still constitute factual information—in fact no less so than facts about politics. Either write about it right or don't write about it at all.]

    [UPDATE: The highly functional wino, who slept his way to a rather prestigious position in a relevant field,§ writes: "No fact-checking dept. Newspapers don't fact-check, though there are some researchers for big things (with sourcing requirements) that the reporters aren't solely responsible for. Editors ask journalists about their sources, and journalists are usually responsible for their own 'research.'" To which I respond, "FUCK OFF, HIGHLY FUNCTIONAL WINO! YOU THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN ME?? Thanks for writing in!"]

    * I thought I knew the name for this—isn't there a name for this?—but apparently not [see also].
    † See also herehere, and elsewhere.
    ‡ This is a little bit like if some birther-conspiracy web site wrote, "WHERE'S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE," and if you clicked on those words it sent you to a high-resolution scan of the birth certificate.
    § And when I say "slept his way," I want you to know I'm talking about some intense, disturbing, Max Hardcore kind of shit. This was a messy road.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010


    In the St. Mark's Bookshop the other day (I was in New York for Thanksgiving), I got all excited for a second when I saw this book—

    —because, hell yeah, I want to read what David Foster Wallace has to say about free will! But then I picked the thing up, and what it is is like a 40-page essay by David Foster Wallace surrounded by I think something like 10 other essays by other, not-DFW people about free will.* Are you kidding me? It's like that very popular commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon, which was then released as this insulting little hardback with, like, five words per page, in a sappy, daily-inspiration-desk-calendar kind of way that runs aggressively against the guy's fondness for complex thoughts and lovingly plotted sentences, and which I (maybe delusionally) feel sure would have rankled old DFW, with those finely tuned bullshit detectors of his that were made all the more rawly sensitive by his actually caring about the kind of thing bullshitters often bullshit about.

    Look, seriously, I'm all for DFW-recognition—and for financial security for the guy's widow! But can we just, like, give her money instead of feeding these publishing sharks with their cynical, biiiig-reach exploitation of a really good writer's suicide? I mean, what's next: are they going to—

    Actually, the example of a particularly soulless and exploitative marketing move I was about to give sounds like fun, to be honest: I might actually buy an Infinite Jest-branded Wings album with everything but Linda McCartney's back-up vocals edited out.

    So, yeah: do that—but otherwise, please don't publish any more David Foster Wallace books that aren't actually David Foster Wallace books, OK? Thanks, bye!

    * See any mention of that on the cover?

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    obligatory make-up post

    "What the fuck is up with your blog lately?"
    –a friend of mine

    What the fuck is up. (via)

    I'm busy, OK? Jesus Christ, give a guy a fuckin' break, you animals!

    LOL, just kidding! (Actually, I can never, ever use "LOL," except as a joke. [Same with OMG.] It puts me at a disadvantage because it's as if I don't speak the same language as everybody else. Eventually maybe I'll get over it, but whenever I try, it feels disingenuous and therefore pretentious. Sometimes I'll say "Ha!" but that can sound insincere or even flat-out sarcastic, and I really like it when people [often girls] write, "Hahahahaha!" but I don't always feel like I can pull that off, partly because I think too much about how many has I'm putting in there and whether to end it with an h, which sometimes looks awesome when it happens but probably only looks awesome because it's accidental, so doing it on purpose totally defeats the purpose. Man, life is hard! But then we Jews have always had it rough.*)

    But, yeah, I'm fuckin' busy. I won't go into it (partly because I never did work out how auto-bioey I want this shit to be, and partly because a very good and smart person passed on the advice lately that it's a good idea for several reasons not to tell people your goals, the most interesting reason actually being that stating your goals can substitute for pursuing them) except to say that I'm working a lot—both for actual money and for potential, future, follow-your-dreams money (call it "aspirationally")—and have had my entire day filled up with no room left for procrastination... which of course feels great!

    Google Image Search seems to think this is a picture of Coach Taylor.

    I will report these scintillating factoids about my life:
    1. Finally I've been watching Friday Night Lights—almost done with Season One—and it's almost preposterously good. I can't really stomach sports and figured it would take me a while to get into a show about football, no matter how good it was, but I basically loved it immediately. It was crazy. I think I was hooked before they'd even gotten to the opening credits. Now the theme song practically brings tears to my eyes. What the hell?
    2. I'm reading True Grit because of the combination of (a) an implicit Coen Bros. endorsement, (b) a drooling review by Roald Dahl, and (c) blurbs in which both Jonathan Lethem and Walker Percy compared the novel and the protagonist to Huck Finn and Huck Finn, respectively. Anyway, I'm really enjoying it, and unless there's some major fuck-up, the movie is gonna be great. (Anybody have an opinion about whether I should watch the John Wayne movie before Dec. 22?)
    3. I really like the new Girl Talk album. Actually, I feel about it exactly the way I felt about Feed the Animals and Night Ripper: at first I was like, "Meh," and then after the 12th listen I was like, "YEAH!"—like, suddenly Nirvana doesn't sound right without Dee-Lite, Biggie doesn't sound right without Elton, and Radiohead doesn't sound right without Ol' Dirty Bastard. I forgive Girl Talk for that idiotic PC ad.
    4. I've also been listening to this a lot:

    That's all for now. You people are wasting my godfucking time.

    * Speaking of which, only thing in Community, which is basically my favorite show right now, that has ever rubbed the wrong way? The runner in one episode in which Annie keeps getting offended when people use the word "Jew" and saying, "Use the whole word!" Even apart from the question of whether "Jew" is offensive (usually no), it is certainly a whole word in itself. I'm not even sure what was meant by that. Anyway, a rare misstep in an excellent show.