Saturday, December 8, 2007

ALRIGHT, WE'LL GIVE SOME LAND [...], BUT WE DON'T WANT THE IRISH: I do hate it when AMC edits down classic films for broadcast.

Three trivia notes on Blazing Saddles: Brooks approached Johnny Carson to play the Waco Kid; he declined. Gene Wilder agreed to do the role so long as Brooks would consider his movie idea next ... and his idea was Young Frankenstein. And it is apparently the first Hollywood film to have a fart joke.
HOW CAN YOU DO THAT FOR $595? The Commodore 64 is 25 years old, and it still has a lot of fans.
AND YOU GOT THIS FAR WITHOUT A SENSE OF SMELL: The first ten minutes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story are available this weekend for free, and certainly indicate a much more deadpan and less manic tone than prior Apatow films.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Roger Catlin | TV Eye: Repurposing the Grammys

SHOUT IF IT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD: So, last week's 25 Greatest Grammy Performances Ever special (sorry I'm late, but the whole childbirth thing) was an interesting telecast, though the list itself was probably in reverse order, thanks to fan voting on the Internet and the general tendency of the Grammys to get things wrong.

Yup, if you told me that the top five ever included Aretha Franklin's "Nessum Dorma", Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", "No More Drama", Jamie Foxx and Alicia Keys on "Georgia on My Mind" and the incomparable Melissa Etheridge/Joss Stone "Piece of My Heart" (about which I've said plenty) (that link also contains much YouTubage), I'd have believed that far sooner than a top 5 list with Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain and Green Day's "American Idiot" bizarrely at number 1.

Still, it's a decent piece of fodder, but no 14 Minutes of Funk!, no Soy Bomb, no ODB?

Philly's own 'Bonnie & Clyde' | Philly

"HAPPINESS AT THE MISFORTUNE OF OTHERS"? THAT IS GERMAN! For a week in which I've had very little time to think deeply or about complicated issues, the tale of Philadelphia's '07 Bonnie and Clyde, Rittenhouse grifters Jocelyn Kirsch and Edward Anderton, has just been a heck of a lot of fun.
CAUTIONARY WHALE: Juno has gotten a lot of Oscar buzz, with Dave Poland's Gurus of Gold having it in the top 10 for picture, screenplay, leading actress (Ellen Page), and supporting actress (Jennifer Garner). Yes, the screenplay's great (though at times it reaches the level of being a bit too post-ironic and self-aware), and the ensemble is damn solid (though I wish Michael Cera had more to do). Also, credit to the trailer cutters and promotions people for not giving away a substantial plot turn late in the film at all. It's Garner's performance, though, that really makes the movie work--in the hands of a lesser actress, her character could have easily wound up as a tightly wound caricature, which would throw the movie off-balance. Instead, Garner turns the character into something far more nuanced, which makes Juno's decisions at the end of the film much more plausible and affecting. It's well worth your while, even if you have to put up with the jackasses who sat behind me, apparently passing a bottle of Old English back and forth during the film while shouting at the screen.
NUTHIN' BUT A "G" THANG: In Part One of Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues that popular culture (particularly video games and television) has become increasingly complicated and intellectually demanding over the past generation or so. In Part Two, Johnson asks whether this cognitively challenging culture is indeed making its consumers "smarter." As you might imagine, his answer is "yes."

Johnson builds his argument around the phenomenon known as the the Flynn Effect, named for the philosopher James Flynn, who discovered that IQ scores have been steadily and significantly rising over the past fifty years (once you remove the periodic recalibrations that help to ensure an "average" IQ is 100). This increase has been particularly striking on tests that measure "general intelligence factor," or g, which governs our problem-solving and pattern-recognition abilities. Although experts have offered a range of possible reasons for the Flynn Effect (broader education, better diet, growing familiarity with standardized testing), Johnson's hypothesis -- summarized in a May 2005 article for Wired -- is that the growing complexity of popular culture may well be contributing to the increases in IQ and g. After all, the features of today's video games, TV shows, and movies that Johnson most celebrates -- probing and telescoping, following narrative threads, tracing networked connections, "filling in" and "leaning forward" -- both shape and reflect precisely the cognitive qualities measured by g. Now, Johnson is careful to frame this claim as a hypothesis, not a causal analysis, and he also admits that the whole enterprise of intelligence testing is fraught with controversy. Still, he comes pretty close to stating that playing Zelda or watching 24 will help you score better on an IQ test.

But why have we been choosing more "complicated" pop culture in the first place? Isn't pop culture all about the race to the bottom, the lowest common denominator, what 1970s TV executives called the Least Objectionable Programming? Johnson argues (in a section excerpted here) that this conventional wisdom is undermined by some fundamental economic, technological, and neurological realities. The "economics of repetition" demonstrates that producers will profit most by creating popular culture that can withstand and even encourage repeat viewings, as consumers uncover and enjoy the complexity of a multi-level video game or a richly layered TV show like The Simpsons in syndication or Lost on DVD. Technology has reinforced this economic trend over the past couple of decades, thanks to devices like VCRs, DVDs, and DVRs, all of which facilitate repeated "close readings"; moreover, the rapid appearance of these and other technologies (video games, PCs, the Web) itself forces our minds to "adapt to adaptation," exploring and mastering complicated new platforms and systems and thereby becoming more receptive to challenging content. And neurologically speaking, Johnson asks, don't we want, even need to be mentally stimulated and exercised? Neuroscientists have found that our brains are hard-wired to seek out challenges, not to wallow and atrophy. For all of these reasons, then, consumers have demanded more complicated popular culture over the past thirty years, and it's that complexity -- rather than any offensive or objectionable content -- that Johnson believes deserves our attention, even our praise.

So, once more, with feeling: How persuasive are Johnson's arguments? Do you believe that today's popular culture actually fosters increased intelligence? Why or why not?

Next week: classes end Monday, so we'll fill out some course evaluations, and then we're done. Hope you're ready for finals!
A TERRIBLE RESOLVE: Today's the 66th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and, as always around this time, there's a goodly chance you can catch the brilliant 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! If you have not watched this cast-of-thousands epic of late (or at all) you should be sure to do so. It's one of the best battle films you will ever see. That is, a movie that deigns simply to relay the history of part of a war without telegraphing for you -- the brain dead, morally tone deaf, non-SAG-member audience -- that war is in fact a bad thing.

Curiously, at least according to the Oracle of Wikipedia, the quote from Admiral Yamamoto was made up.
YOU'LL GET NOTHING AND LIKE IT: Apparently, Oakland is where Barry Bonds' career will go to die. Of course (and scandal aside) I have no idea how his numbers fit into the Moneyball analysis and I don't see how a team pays him more than about $3M a year, and I don't think he'd take less than $10M.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

OUT OUT DAMNED SPOT: Somehow, I think tonight's Grey's places pretty highly on this chart (probably somewhere between Mortal Kombat and Sweeney Todd). Also, anyone else find it ironic that by all accounts, There Will Be Blood contains far less blood than Sweeney? - 2007 Sportsman of the Year - 2007 Sportsman of the Year: Brett Favre - Tuesday December 4, 2007 12:14AM

NO, PETER KING DIDN'T WRITE IT: Brett Favre is your 2007 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

As I said last year, it probably should have been Roger Federer. Three more Grand Slam titles, including his fifth straight at Wimbledon and fourth straight at the U.S. Open. A record 201 straight weeks as the #1 ranked men's player in the world. Just a stunning level of performance in a sport from which Americans have drifted away.

Alternately, it should have been Barry Bonds or The Needle, as that has been the dominant story across so many sports this year.

YouTube - Barack OBollywood

TIME FOR OUR REGULAR BHANGRA UPDATE: Yes, okay, it's been a while since our last one, but since it contains no political content whatsoever I can gleefully link to this Obama-meets-Bollywood mashup video.
IF YOU'RE NOT CHEATING, YOU'RE NOT TRYING: There was a little bit of complaining about the lack of an ANTM post today, so let me just say: blame fraud for distracting me. In truth though, there isn't much to say about last night's episode. The right person went home (and should have gone home last week, or several times during the last few weeks), and we saw yet another of the show's go-to moves: encourage contestant to open up and say what's on her mind, then absolutely savage her for opening up and saying what's on her mind. In fact, if you go on this show and you say anything other than "I want to be just like Tyra, except not quite as good" or, for the less comfortable with the English language (not pointing any fingers at past winners, you understand), "yay Tyra!"

As for the rest of the season -- meaning the only remaining episode -- since they fired the one who took the best pictures, I don't really care who wins. (Actually, I'm kind of rooting for Jenah, who is very much a stunning model whenever she hides her teeth and the pocket doors that cover them, plus she seems kind of normal.) If I were betting on this, though, I wouldn't discount the fact that Tyra likes to do whatever makes her look the best, and ever since Tyra cured autism, her T-Zone work to build kids' (including Saleisha's) self-esteem has been begging for some screen time. I mean, this is a really phenomenal story, guys -- Tyra took a tall, skinny, beautiful, gregarious, sociable girl and gave her self-esteem! A Christmas miracle! Though, presuming that one gets paid to model professionally for ANTM and for The Tyra Banks Show Starring Tyra Banks, that's not all she gave her. I'm going to predict that if Saleisha wins it this cycle, then next cycle the final two are going to be Tyra's mom and the ref who gave Chris Webber the technical for the phantom timeout.
SUPER-FAST: We're going on a trip in our favorite rocket ship, zooming through the sky. Climb aboard, get ready to explore. There's so much to find!
I'M WAITING FOR THE JPL STUDY ON SLEIGH AERODYNAMICS: With the Cold War over, one might wonder just what the fine folks at NORAD (North American Air Defense) are up to. Well, now you have an answer.
WILL SHE SHOW UP FOR THE AWARDS, OR SAY "NO, NO, NO?" The Grammy nomination list announced today is, as usual, epicly long (110 categories? really?), and full of WTF moments, but a few things of note:
  • Record of the Year (performer award)--"Irreplacable," "The Pretender" (Foo Fighters), "Umbrella," "What Goes Around...Comes Around," "Rehab."
  • Album of the Year--Foo Fighters, Kanye West, Vince Gill(?), Herbie Hancock(?), and Winehouse.
  • Song of the Year (songwriter award)--"Before He Cheats," "Hey There Delilah," "Like A Star," "Rehab," "Umbrella."
  • New Artist--Feist, Ledisi (??), Paramore (???), Taylor Swift, Winehouse
  • "Our Country" nominated for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance (which is no longer split among male/female, making for a much-needed category slimming, though country still has the male/female split).
  • Daughtry racks up a fair number of nominations in Rock--Rock Performance, Rock Song, Rock Album, but is shut out of New Artist.
  • Lily Allen deemed "alternative."
  • "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" nominated for best rap song, but not best rap performance.
  • Multiple AI alumni showing up--Clarkson, Fantasia, Daughtry, Underwood, Mandisa (Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album).
  • Spoken word pits Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou, Jimmy Carter, and Alan Alda against one another.
  • Flight of The Conchords! Yay! (Best Comedy Album nominee.)
  • Songs from Into The Wild and Once get nominations for Best Original Song (filled out by Happy Feet, Casino Royale, and Dreamgirls).
  • Surprising absences? Bruuuce is pretty much nowhere, and Tony Bennett's much Emmy-winning Duets only gets in for "Steppin' Out" with Aguilera.
YOU GUYS ARE WRITERS; FINISH THE SENTENCE: Some odds, ends, and random thoughts from the writers' strike:

First, I know it's wrong to profit from somebody else's misfortune, but this strike couldn't have come at a better time for me. I'm eight episodes behind on Heroes, two and a half on Chuck, three or four on Gossip Girl, two on Runway, one or two on TAR, and an undetermined number on a bunch of shows I may never watch, like Reaper, Kid Nation, etc. It's going to take a six-week strike, plus the usual holiday down time, just to catch up.

Second, I'm no Jimmy Kimmel fan, but I think it's mighty big of him to pay his entire non-writing staff during the strike. I admire this from Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien, but $750K - $1MM per year of production salary is not life-changing for them; for Kimmel, who is paid far less, it could be, especially since Kimmel has been suspended without pay.

Third, Ask a Ninja breaks down the strike.

Fourth, if you're jonesing for new content (and you haven't yet received your Wire Season 4 because of unexpected demand), Amazon is showing three backstory clips -- Prop Joe getting them coming and going, McNulty making an impression on Bunk, and Omar calibrating his ethics meter.

TV Tattle; NPR

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I GOT A LOT OF PROBLEMS WITH YOU PEOPLE! Alan Sepinwall is already gathering suggestions for his "Festivus" list for television, in which he makes a list of things that have disappointed him in television this year. I suspect many of those would be echoed here (the wildly scattershot nature of Grey's, Addison's abrupt character shift on Private Practice), but let's open this up to broader popculture--films, books, music, video games, the Internet--what disappointed you this year? A few thoughts:
  • Pirates of The Carribbean 3, which just got way too bogged down in mystical mumbo jumbo to do what the first one did so effectively, which is just rawly entertain. (It was OK, but I was hoping for more.)
  • The Darjeeling Limited, which I'd hoped would be a return to form for Wes Anderson, but lacked real humor or heart.
  • I Am America (And So Can You)!, which demonstrates that tone doesn't come across well in print, and that Colbert is all tone.

Offer yours, but remember that Festivus isn't over till you pin me.

SOME AWARDS FOR OLD MEN: Such might be an appropriate headline for the announcement that the National Board of Review has kicked off the year-end awards season by naming No Country For Old Men best picture. They spread the love around though, giving Tim Burton best director for Sweeney Todd, George Clooney best actor for Michael Clayton, Julie Christie best actress for Away From Her, Casey Affleck best supporting actor for Assassination of Jesse James By The Excessively Long Title, and Amy Ryan best supporting actress for Gone Baby Gone. Joining No Country, Sweeney, Jesse James, and Michael Clayton on the overall top ten list were Atonement, The Bourne Ultimatium, The Bucket List (seriously?), Into the Wild, Juno, The Kite Runner, and Lars And The Real Girl. (A fuller list, including screenplay, breakthrough performance, and directorial debut awards, is here.)
SO CAN WE STILL CALL IT THE "IDIOT BOX"?: As noted on Monday, Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You claims that today's popular culture is getting "more complex and intellectually challenging," and is therefore "actually making us smarter." After examining video games, Johnson turns his attention to television, where he claims to find similar patterns of increasing complexity and "mental exercise." (Conveniently, most of this section was previewed in an April 2005 article for The New York Times Magazine.) According to Johnson, today's TV shows are "smarter" than ever, not because they're more intelligently written or directed (though some may well be) but because they demand more of their viewers -- more engagement, more attention, more "working out" of narrative complexity.

Three developments in particular have created more demanding television. First, many of today's shows, especially dramas, feature multiple story arcs or plot threads. A generation ago, dramas typically had just one main thread per episode, with perhaps a comic subplot at the beginning and end, as represented in Johnson's graph of a typical Starsky and Hutch episode. In 1981, along came Hill Street Blues, and TV viewers had to start paying more attention to several different narrative threads. Yet even Hill Street seems the height of simplicity when compared with the overlapping and ongoing multiple story arcs of a show like The Sopranos. (The YouTube video "Seven Minute Sopranos" wittily summarizes that show's complex web of narratives.)

Johnson also asserts that contemporary TV shows force viewers to work harder at understanding each episode: decoding ambiguous dialogue, "filling in" missing information, tracing connections across episodes, recognizing external references. Once upon a time, he claims, TV shows offered viewers easily accessible scripts, often outfitted with expository "flashing arrows" to reinforce key plot points. (Johnson takes this term from a scene in the horror spoof Student Bodies.) In contrast, many of today's programs are far less straightforward, complicated by technical jargon (ER), flashbacks and flash-forwards (The West Wing, Lost), and piles of pop-culture references (The Simpsons). Johnson labels the famous "backward" Seinfeld episode, "Betrayal," "a watershed in television programming," as it "wove together seven distinct threads, withheld crucial information in almost every sequence, and planted jokes that had multiple layers of meaning."

Finally, Johnson claims that today's TV viewers must also keep track of dauntingly complex "social networks" of characters and relationships. Here again, dramas best capture the trend, as Johnson juxtaposes the modestly intricate web of ties that bound together the characters on Dallas with the mind-bending intersections of family, work, and politics that connect people on 24. Yet even reality shows -- especially competition programs like Survivor and The Apprentice -- allegedly foster increased "social intelligence," as we track the contestants' motives, critique their psychological strategies, and imagine how we'd behave in a similar setting.

Although Johnson goes on to discuss the Internet and film, arguing that trends in both media support the "Sleeper Curve" thesis, his analysis in both areas feels a bit thin, even perfunctory. So let's keep our focus on TV. Are you convinced by Johnson's argument? Are today's TV shows really making us "smarter"? Can an essentially passive medium like television -- so different from the active, participatory medium of video games -- ever command genuine cognitive "engagement" from its viewers? (For a skeptical take on Johnson's analysis, as well as a vigorous defense, see this dialogue between Johnson and Slate TV critic Dana Stevens.)
LIKE A SAMBA THAT SWINGS SO COOL AND SWAYS SO GENTLY: This recent article in The New Yorker is a must read for fans of bossa nova (and you are all fans of bossa nova, right?). Among the artists discussed in the article:

  • I will second the praise that the author Gary Giddins heaps upon Rosa Passos, who truly has an astonishing voice. I rather enjoyed her 2003 CD Entre Amigos.
  • Young and incredibly gifted, Marisa Monte is apt to appeal to many of you. I own 3 of her CDs, the most accessible of which is Infinito Particular.
  • Guitarist Joao Gilberto is a genius, known in Brazil as O Mito (the "Legend"), a nickname he has earned. If you don't own it already (and you should), go out and buy Getz/Gilberto right away. For a nice career retrospective, check out his latest concert album In Tokyo.
  • Although she is relatively unknown in America, I often play Elis Regina's music. Her work is uneven, but at her best she is simply sublime. Her greatest hits collection Personalidade is excellent.
  • Anotonio Carlos Jobim means more to the history of bossa nova than the Beatles mean to the history of rock music. This greatest hits collection is one you should own (only $9.97 at amazon).
  • Caetano Veloso is another favorite of mine. There is a good article in the New York Times about a recent concert of his in New York here. Among his many CDs, I'd recommend The Best of Caetano Veloso as a good overview of his career and A Foreign Sound, in which he covers many English language songs including a stunning cover of "Come as You Are".
  • Guitarist Luiz Bonfa's gentle and nimble melodies fill me with delight. Listen to Non-Stop to Brazil.
In 2008, Brazil will celebrate bossa nova's 50th anniversary. It is a body of music that has stood the test of time incredibly well.
I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU DIDN'T KNOW THAT JOSH BROLIN DIED: The film No Country for Old Men has drawn raves (see here, here, and here).

I found this article from The New Yorker both amusing and accurate.

I found this longer piece by Jim Emerson quite insightful.

See also several of Roger Ebert's "Movie Answer Man" pieces here, here, here, and here
GOOD GOLLY: Little Richard turns 75 today.
  • Rolling Stone ranked Little Richard #8 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
  • James Brown called Little Richard his idol and credited him with "first putting the funk in the rock and roll beat."
  • In 2007, Little Richard's 1955 original hit 'Tutti Frutti' topped Mojo magazine's poll of "The Top 100 Records That Changed The World."
Here is a quick test to see if you are alive. Listen to the man sing "Tutti Frutti". If you find your head moving to the beat and a smile on your face, then you are in fact alive.
DRINK UP ME HEARTIES, YO HO: Along with birthdays for Margaret Cho, Walt Disney, Strom Thurmond, Joan Didion, Calvin Trillin, and adorable polar bear Knut, today also marks the 74th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. (A linkage? South Carolina was the only state to reject ratification of the 21st Amendment.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

AS THE BABY BURRITO FACTORY STARTS ANEW: First off, thanks to everyone for their kind words. Phoebe is a darling, and everyone is doing great.

Like Isaac, I too have been spending long hours of late with time to ponder odd questions. These are mine:
  • What the hell is up with these Wendy's ads with the guys in the wigs? I love Wendy's; I despise these ads.
  • Will Smith may be only Hollywood's fifth smartest film person, says the new EW, but he said something Sunday night on 60 Minutes catapults him even higher, in my estimation: when asked about his film choices, he said that he and his manager once looked at the top 10 films in all-time box office, and determined as follows:
"And we got the top ten movies of all time, and we realized that ten out of ten were special effects movies," Smith explains. "Nine out of ten were special effects movies with creatures. And eight out of ten were special effects movies with creatures and a love story."

Which, of course, leads to an output like this. But I think Smith is selling his talent short -- because charisma is a talent, and he can act -- when he says the following: "I've never really viewed myself as particularly talented. I've viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic. You know, while the other guy's sleeping? I'm working. While the other guy's eatin’? I'm working. While the other guy's making love, I mean, I'm making love, too. But I'm working really hard at it."
Dear readers, how talented is Will Smith?
SHE LEARNED THE TRUTH AT SEVENTEEN: I don't know if I've ever read a celebrity interview quite as candid as this one with Mean Girls/Related/The Class star Lizzy Caplan, in which she states that she took her role in upcoming J.J. Abrams flick Cloverfield (also featuring Serena van der Woodsen!) without getting a script solely because she's a big fan of Lost, admits that Cloverfield is "either going to be really good, or really disappointing," admits that she's ticked that she keeps losing roles to ALOTT5MA fave Anna Faris, and says of her upcoming movie Bachelor No. 2 nothing more than "Ugh." You have to admit that level of candor is pretty damn impressive.
THERE'S ONLY ONE RECORD HOLDER: The most frightening thing in this story about Dave Chappelle breaking his own record for longest standup set ever (now at 6 hours and 12 minutes) is that Dane Cook is allegedly going to make his own run at the record. Any guesses on just how little of Cook's record breaking time would actually be even remotely funny?

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) - Memorable quotes

YOU DIDN'T THINK IT WAS GONNA BE BUTTER, DID YOU? YOU KNOW, FOR A SECOND THERE, YEAH, I KINDA DID: Serious Eats has an amusing and revealing look at some of the house brand permutations of the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter brand.

Hat tip to Francis, who has a list of his own suggestions.
PUT ON YOUR YARMULKE...: Tonight begins the Festival of Lights (if you're looking for a last-minute gift, my friend Peter Orner contributed an excellent essay to How to Spell Chanukah and Other Holiday Dilemmas), but unlike David Lee Roth, Christopher Hitchens won't be lighting the menorah.

And speaking of the holidays, travel back to 1984 with this CBS Morning News report predicting that the big holiday phrase that year will be "Daddy, I want a CD player," (especially with prices on players dropping to $300). Best part of the report? It has to be the voice over "Record companies are racing to get all their pop stars on disc," as the camera pans the racks on longboxes (remember those?) with Frank Stallone's CD front and center.

Monday, December 3, 2007

OH WHAT A GAME! I found last night's game very exciting.
AND ARMORED POLAR BEARS, TO BOOT: Having not read any of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I can't say whether the uproar that the movie and books are necessarily anti-religious (and particularly anti-Catholic) has any real teeth. (Though the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury has praised the books indicates to me that there may be a bit of an overreaction going on here.) The argument that they have valuable things to say about fundamentalism and the dangers of believing anything without questioning strikes me as having enormous appeal, and the trailers for the movie look gorgeous. So, ThingThrowers, anything we should know before heading out to the movies, and are the books worth reading?
INDUCTION JUNCTION: Some interesting Hall of Fame news today. It looks like chili dogs will be on the menu at the Waldorf this spring, because according to Future Rock Hall, John Mellencamp broke the news at a concert last week that he has gained induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And the Baseball Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee, perhaps sensing that this year's class of players might lack some spice and cognizant that people want to see someone inducted this summer, opened the doors for five former managers and executives, including former commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former Red Sox and A's manager Dick Williams (hope he wears a belt).
TYPE SLOWLY: When you put almost a thousand miles on your odometer in less than a week of solitary driving, you tend to mull over the same questions for improbably long periods of time -- why haven't I been listening to Spoon more?; is Lompoc the largest U.S. urban area I've visited that's not on a major highway? (answer: no; that's Wenatchee, but close). Here are the two that troubled me the most:
  • Is Pavement's Steven Malkmus a free-associating poet of the obscure, or is he just an author of pretentiously awful lyrics?
  • How can there be so many people in the world, and specifically in San Luis Obispo County, who don't know the fundamental rule of freeway driving: the only excuse for traveling the same speed as or slower than the traffic in the lane to your right is that the person immediately in front of you is preventing you from speeding up?
YOU CAN JUST HANG OUTSIDE IN THE SUN ALL DAY TOSSIN' A BALL AROUND, OR YOU CAN SIT AT YOUR COMPUTER AND DO SOMETHIN' THAT MATTERS: Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You attracted a lot of attention when it first appeared in 2005 -- partly because of its provocative argument, partly because of Johnson's impressive media-critic credentials as a founder of Feed,, and and the author of several other acclaimed books (a list now joined by a 2007 favorite for several ThingThrowers, The Ghost Map).

Johnson lays out his straightforward thesis on the very first page of Everything Bad: "popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years." He amusingly dubs this phenomenon the "Sleeper Curve," after the Woody Allen movie in which scientists of the future are shocked to learn that late-20th-century Earthlings didn't realize the nutritional value of steak, cream pies, and hot fudge. For Johnson, though, the products with hidden brainy goodness aren't foodstuffs but rather pop-culture media: video games, television, the Internet, and film, all of which are increasingly providing their consumers with "a kind of cognitive workout."

Among these media, Johnson devotes the most attention to video games. As seen in the PBS documentary, The Video Game Revolution, games boast a long and complex history, yet they've received relatively little critical attention. Moreover, much of that attention -- as well as the more casual criticisms from political and civic leaders -- has focused on games' violent content and its potential impact on young players. Johnson, however, argues that we need to analyze video games less for their content and more for the cognitive work they demand. Drawing on the work of James Paul Gee, Johnson examines how players explore gameworlds through "probing" (figuring out the game's rules and goals) and "telescoping" (managing a complex, nested collection of objectives). The rewards in such games -- from Zelda and Myst to The Sims and Grand Theft Auto -- lie not in their stories but in the act of gameplay itself. As Johnson puts it, "It's not what you're thinking about when you're playing a game, it's the way you're thinking that matters." And that way of thinking, he argues, provides "mental exercise" with valuable benefits in "attention, memory, following threads, ... perceiving relationships, determining priorities ... [and] participatory thinking and analysis."

It's a compelling argument, to be sure, though it's not without flaws. Johnson basically brackets the "violent games" debate until the last few pages of his book, and while other experts like MIT's Henry Jenkins have persuasively rebutted some of the content-based critiques, Johnson prefers to return to his claim that games' "method" shapes their players more than their content does. In addition, my students felt that Johnson downplayed games' addictiveness and intensity of experience. Particularly in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and EVE Online, players can become utterly consumed by these virtual worlds, sometimes with serious "real world" consequences.

But here I need to turn the discussion over to you, because I'm not a gamer (though don't tell the kids, but we're getting a Wii for Christmas). For those of you who do play video games, does Johnson's analysis ring true? More generally, why do you enjoy gaming -- the games' content, the gameplay experience, the virtual community of other gamers? For those who don't play games, why don't you?
SCOOPED BY PERISCOPE: Join us in joyfully welcoming the newest member of our family, Phoebe Pearl Bonin, who reportedly has an incisive wit and left-leaning tendencies. Mazel tov to Adam and Jen!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

I'M MUCH MORE METHODICAL THAN YOU: This leg of the Race had something for everyone--much Airport Fu amounting to very little (and I find it hard to believe that there wasn't the opportunity for more such Fu in Paris), navigational difficulties both on foot and by auto, people nearly getting hit by a bus, helpful local navigation aides, the obligatory Travelocity product placement, and a detour that automatically gets points for reminding us of Lori and Bolo counting bears in Ikea (perhaps explaining why folks were so reluctant to do the counting at least at first). Discuss.
SIX DEGREES OF...DA COACH: I wrote a fun story in the Sunday Chicago Tribune linking Mike Ditka to this holiday season's biggest movies a la the Kevin Bacon Game. Because of space considerations (and I urge to check out the print edition--p. 5 of the Arts Section--as it doesn't translate quite as well on the Net), a few of the movies got cut, so I thought I might as well share those with you here...

"Lions for Lambs" (Opened Nov. 9)
This contemporary political drams was directed by and stars Robert Redford

Redford was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal con man Johnny Hooker in "The Sting" (1973)
The Chicago Sting of the North American Soccer League played many of their home games at Soldier Field
Soldier Field has been the home field of the Chicago Bears since 1971 and on game days from 1982-92 the home team sidelines were patrolled by…Mike Ditka

"Walk Hard" (Opens Dec. 21)
This mock bio of a rock legend was co-written by Jake Kasdan
As a child, Kasdan appeared briefly in his dad Lawrence’s film, "The Big Chill" (1983)
The main characters in "The Big Chill" all met at the
University of Michigan
University of Michigan alum Jim Harbaugh was the Bears first-round pick in 1987 and though he had some successes as a Bear, is perhaps best remembered for throwing an interception that led to the firing of…Mike Ditka

"There Will Be Blood" (Release date TBD)
This story of oil corruption in the ’20s was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson also helmed "Punch Drunk Love," which improbably starred Adam Sandler
Sandler more typically was in the remake of "The Longest Yard," which also featured wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin

Austin was once married to pro wrestling diva Debra McMichael
McMichael was previously married to former Bears defensive tackle Steve "Mongo" McMichael, a longtime starter on the defensive line for the Bears teams led by…Mike Ditka