Saturday, May 31, 2003

AND NOW, SOME ACTUAL, NON-CULTURAL, GOOD NEWS: CNN is reporting that Eric Rudolph has been captured.

With all the resources expended on tracking potential Muslim terrorists post-9/11, I had worried that we had lost our focus on this domestic terrorist, on the run for five years, whose targets included women's clinics and lesbian nightclubs. I'm happy to see that justice will now be done.
CLASSIC TV: Did anyone know that MTV was going to be re-airing the entire Real World: Hawaii season last night from 9pm-7:30am?

Wow. What great television. The Hawaii season is neck-and-neck with San Francisco as being Real World's best, and if your preferred tragic figure is Ruthie over Pedro, and preferred shit-disturber is Teck over Puck, then Hawaii clearly wins.

Between Ruthie's alcoholism, Matt's twistedness (I want Ruthie! No, wait, her sister! No, wait, Kaia!), Amaya's neediness and Teck's construction of the Chris Tucker archetype, it's a hell of a season. Then add in Local Motion's Calvin -- Gratist Boss Evir, Justin's manipulations, all the gratuitous nudity and Teck/Ruthie's girlfriend Malo, who, as Colin reminds us, "Malo means 'bad' in Spanish. I don't mean she's a bad person, I just mean that's what her name means in Spanish," and, well, you've got addictive television. We stayed up for the first three hours and videotaped the rest until our tape stopped.

Remember it all via Damitol's summaries, which just plain rock.

When it comes to observational reality shows, casting is everything. There has never been a reality show with as wonderfully combustive and consistently entertaining cast as that RW season, and for that, Bunim/Murray, we thank you.
I DO ROLL ON SHABBAS: Did you know that the 2nd Annual Lebowski Fest is being held on July 19, 2003, at the AMF Rose Bowl in Louisville, KY?

The Fest will feature:
--Unlimited Bowling and Free Shoe Rental

--Celebrity appearance by Jeff "The Dude" Dowd

--Big Lebowski Costume Contest

--White Russians, Sarsaparillas, and Oat Sodas

--Trivia, Farthest Traveled, and Bowling Contests

The site also hosts a forum with even more obsessive Lebowski fans than I, people who want to know the answers to questions like this:
Throughout the movie Walter loses his temper with everyone. The Dude, Donny, Brandt, Mr. Lebowski, the Nilhists, the waitress, Smokey, Larry, and the funeral director. (If I'm forgetting anyone let me know.)

He loses his temper with just about everyone he comes in contact with. Everyone except for Jesus. Why doesn't he lose his temper with Jesus? He threatens Walter and insults him. That usually makes Walter furious. Why do you suppose he holds back?

Good website. Lotta ins, lotta outs.
HEY! THE BIG 'M'! HOW'S IT HANGING, MCFLY? In response to my earlier inquiry seeking votes on Best Acting Performance By A Red Hot Chili Pepper, Scott of the Life, Law Libido blog has a nominee I had forgotten about: Flea (who has a rather extensive filmography) as Doug Needles in the Back to the Future movies. Hmm.

Nice one, but he doesn't handle a marmot in the movie. (You think veer kidding und making mit de funny stuff?)

Friday, May 30, 2003

HAVING ONE'S CAKE: Dave Poland of The Hot Button really feels bad about passing along a particularly titillating piece of gossip about a prominent filmmaker:
The reality is that this story is likely to give wing to the ugliest aspects of the entertainment media. A man’s most personal of choices will become our collective source of comedy for a few weeks. After that, it will be his life again. And we will have contributed a good deal of pain, cruelty and selfish indulgence to the karma of the universe.

And so he tortures himself about whether to tell the story:
But I have to be aware of my own ego in writing this story. Am I really writing this because I want to make my small effort to shape how you look at this issue? Am I doing this man a favor by framing this before the tabloids do or am I starting a bigger snowball down the hill a little faster than it need be rolled? Do I just want to be first?

I could just rationalize the idea that he wants to be open and honest and that I’m a ray of the disinfecting sunshine. I could claim it is news and news is news and that is my job. But whenever someone tells you that, pay the check and leave quickly, you are about to be bent over in an unpleasant way.

I could just walk away from the story… pretend that it is beneath me and my column… hold my nose high in the air while Jay Leno stoops to gags that Johnny probably would have passed over.

So, of course, he doesn't tell the story, and takes the high road, right?

Of course not.

For all of the self-righteous pondering about whether to publish the story, it turns out Poland wasn't the first to tell the story in the first place. Or even the second.
O-V-E-R-R-A-T-E-D: And now, a final word on Spelling Bees, because for all the electronic ink I spilled yesterday, and for all the hours I watched on tv, I still can't get past concluding that the whole thing is bogus.

Look, it's great television, and great drama, but is spelling the best field towards which these kids should be devoting all these hours?

Yes, spelling bees promote knowledge of Latin and Greek root words. They increase vocabulary. They promote memorization skills. As one Bee brochure put it in the 1930s:
Business men, editors and educators generally agree that graduates of high schools and colleges are less competent in spelling than in any of the fundamental subjects such as arithmetic, geography and English. The Spelling Bee introduces competition among individuals who aspire to grade championships, establishes class and school spirit in the contests between grade winners and school champions and instills ambition not only in the best spellers who win the Washington trips, but among the thousands of boys and girls who, falling short of championships, resolve to better their standings in the next match.

Yes, but we've all got spell-checkers on our computers now, and the words being tested aren't words that are actually going to be useful to these kids at any point in their lives. The last five rounds contained ten completely useless words -- betony, hypozeuxis, dipnoous, aplustre, gadarene, symphily, peirastic, gnathonic, rhathymia and pococurante -- and only two that I've ever used in my life: seriatim, which every lawyer would know, and boudin, the blood sausage.

The words are obscure because they have to be: we've engineered a breed of super-geeks with driven parents, kids who do nothing but work on the Bees (some have been in 3-4 national finals), so that just testing kids on useful words doesn't cut it anymore. In essence, the Bee has succeeded: we expect bright kids to be able to spell in a professional, relatively error-free manner. By way of comparison, here's the final words from the first 22 years of the Bee:
abrogate, luxuriance, albumen, asceticism, fracas, foulard, knack, torsion, deteriorating, intelligible, interning, promiscuous, sanitarium, canonical, therapy, initials, sacrilegious, semaphore, chlorophyll, psychiatry, dulcimer

Every single word, save foulard, being common, everyday English, and all of them too easy to be used in this year's competition, Heck, as recently as 1983-85, the final words were Purim, luge and milieu.

Maybe the spelling bee has served its purpose. It's raised the bar so that unsatisfactory spelling doesn't get out of elementary school, and where the best kids can spell just about anything.

But why bother? Why not have them apply their brains to useful knowledge, like math, science, history, or geography -- areas where superproficiency does lead to a lifetime of benefits? Learn your math and science, and you could be a great engineer; learn history and geography, and you understand a complicated world; where does great spelling lead you?

One last thing: spelling bees are solitary affairs. You study on your own; you win as an individual. It is anti-social. They don't teach teamwork the way math competitions do (four students, twenty minutes, ten questions), and teamwork and social skills are so important as you grow.

Look, I'm all happy for Sai Gunturi. I'm glad he can spell sanguine, insalubrious, Veracruzano, marmoraceous, mistassini mistassini, solfeggio, piezochemistry, voussoir, halogeton, dipnoous, peirastic, rhathymia and pococurante. I just don't know what good it does him now that the competition's over.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

SIMPLY AMAZING: The Race is back, and it's as good as ever.

What's changed? Absolutely nothing. Thank goodness.

More details and discussion of ass-planting, line-jumping and model-hating to follow in the coming days. For now, send in the clowns and give me a healthy dose of Team Pushing Tin . . .
AND IT'S OVER: Congratulations to Sai Gunturi of Dallas, Texas, who just won the National Spelling Bee. It was his fourth trip to the national finals.

Sai's final word, in round fifteen? Pronounced poe-koh-kyoo-RAN-tee, meaning "indifferent" or "apathetic", language of origin being Italian, via Latin.

Sai didn't have to think more than a few seconds before spelling it properly: pococurante [highlight space to reveal]

Immediately after winning, Sai told the ESPN reporter that he plans to spend his winnings on "a lot of video games". Good for him.
I PUT A SPELL ON YOU: Words from rounds 3-8 that are just a drop or two easier than the rest:
R3 - The Easy Morning Round: chauvinism, anodyne (c'mon -- these kids listen to Uncle Tupelo, right?), garrulous, Pythagorean, carafe, egregious, frieze, incorrigible, sluice, recalcitrant, inexorable, pernicious, endorphin, karaoke, adjudicate, Gorgonzola, avaricious, canard, and anachronism. Adjudicate?

R4: trattoria, Tammanyism, mores, apartheid, Huguenot -- three of five where, if you're a good history student, you're fine.

R5: ganache, Krugerrand, Botticellian, while other kids are getting "gauleiter", "pelycosaur" and "acajou". Am noticing a definite pattern where foofy food words that are easy to me might trip up kids.

R6: a fair, tough round. Is "ditalini" easier? Maybe if you cook pasta.

R7: I mean, I know "trebuchet" off the top of my head, but we're in tough ground now.

R8: Don't tell me that the kid who's Spanish/English bilingual just got "zocalo". Oh, wait, he did, while New Jersey's Jesse Zymet got "lefse", some kind of Norwegian pancake.

Follow along online here.

Man, there's fun to be had while Lucy's napping.
THIS IS THE LAST TIME I'M GOING TO SAY IT: If you don't watch The Amazing Race 4 tonight (8p eastern), you suck. Even if you hate reality tv, this is the one to watch.

More praise: Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Jonathan Storm begins:
So you're one of those who never watch reality TV? "Can't stand it," you say. "It's for kids and morons."

Take a minute - you're smart, so you must read fast - to look at this article. It may add a little spice to your life. It might get you to watch The Amazing Race 4, which begins at 8 tonight on CBS, and you might find there's more to reality than you thought.
HOPE'S DIAMOND: Back in the fall of 1997, I opened up a Dead Pool among my friends to predict the order of passing of three legends seemingly on the brink of death: Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.

Obviously, of the three, only one is no longer with us. This, despite the fact that I made "Bob Hope's not dead yet?" my recurrent shtick on Randy Cohen's NewsQuiz on for quite some time (see examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), because, face it, dude's been near-embalmed for quite some time.

But today, Leslie Townes Hope turns 100 years old, and given all the abuse I've flung I think the karma police would want me to acknowledge it in a polite way.

For my generation, Bob Hope was a fairly regular television presence, if not the mega-star he was in the -and-Crosby years. He was the one who introduced the college football All-Americans each year. He had the seasonal specials with the stars. He told well-timed jokes with knowing asides to the audience. He visited the troops. A lot.

What we didn't appreciate, however, was his influence on American comedy. We didn't understand how innovative he was in fourth-wall-breaking in his films, in the creation of the Hope "character" with such confident swagger but romantic bumbling, in opening the comedic space for snark to prevail.

So on his 100th birthday, let's not think of Hope as a tired, repetitive comic; a serial adulterer or a Vietnam apologist who refuses to die. Let's remember the innovator, the only man Congress ever named an honorary veteran of the United States Armed Forces, a true legendary entertainer. Thanks for the memories, Bob, and may you celebrate your remaining years in peace and good health.

Articles to read: Jerry Nachman's remembrance in the SF Chronicle, USA Today's List of 100 Hope Highlights, and the CNN and BBC tributes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

EMAIL? NO, REALLY? Imagine you're competing in the 76th annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. Imagine you're facing "quincunx" or "kwashiorkor" in round one. One error, and you're gone.

Now, imagine how pissed you'd be if your fellow spellers got any of the following words while you had to struggle:

That's right: while poor Shruti Mishra of West Lafayette, IN was faced with "phthisiology", Grant Remmen of Detroit Lakes, MN got "email".

Your round one words and results are here. The competition continues tomorrow morning, on ESPN, at 10am. (Then MathCounts at noon!)

And yes, I'm still bitter that when I was in elementary school, I competed in the city-level bee and got knocked out on "dowdily" when a kid the next round was asked to spell "sundae". Yes, sundae. You'd be bitter too.

edited to add, 6-2-2007: This item has been corrected. Our apologies to Grant Remmen.
KELEFA SANNEH GIVETH, KELEFEH SANNEH TAKETH AWAY: Can you still rock after the age of forty? The NYT's Kelefa Sanneh has a nice pair of reviews this week on two aging bands, each going on a different current arc.

First, Sanneh on the Red Hot Chili Peppers:
Looking for an easy way to ruin your band? Try this: grow up, chill out, dig in. Shed your we-use-"party"-as-a-verb reputation and rededicate yourselves to musicianship. Embrace balladry. Allow the guitarist to sing.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, now celebrating their 20th anniversary, have done all of these things. And yet somehow, the results are spectacular. On Tuesday night, the band came to Madison Square Garden for an extraordinary two-hour performance, full of wildly inventive playing and — even better — lovely songs.

It has taken the band a long time to get this good, and perhaps it couldn't have done it any faster. Its previous incarnation as a jovial punk-funk act gave the members lots of opportunity to blow off steam. . . . Mr. Kiedis deserves much of the credit for his band's evolution. By yielding the spotlight a little bit, he has helped his bandmates explore new ideas. And if the shy Mr. Frusciante has not become the band's new leader, he has nevertheless become its guiding spirit.

On the other hand, he also saw Fleetwood Mac last week:
Compared with the group's long career, a presidential term is merely a passing fad: Fleetwood Mac was there in 1993, to play Bill Clinton into office, and the group was there eight years later, to play him out.

And what's the reward for persevering so long? Yet another concert — this one at Nassau Coliseum on Friday night — on yet another tour supporting yet another album, entertaining the same fans who saw the band last time and will, most likely, see the band next time.

The band members had plenty of help: Stevie Nicks was shadowed by two backup singers, Mick Fleetwood was joined by a backup drummer (sometimes two) and Lindsey Buckingham had as many as three guitarists playing with him. In fact there were easily enough musicians onstage to form two Fleetwood Macs, which might be one way to justify ticket prices that reached $138.

The current incarnation is led by Mr. Buckingham, which is a problem for anyone who doesn't enjoy histrionic guitar solos, overheated vocals and pious speeches. . . . Mr. Buckingham certainly knows how to finger-pick an enchanting guitar line, but he spent too much of the night showing off; when he got really carried away, he would slap at his instrument with both hands, like a dog trying to unwrap a Christmas present.

I still can't believe Anthony Kiedis and Flea are 40.

[side question: best acting performance by a RHCP member -- Flea as a nihilist in The Big Lebowski, or Kiedis as a surf-punk in Point Break? Discuss.]
IS IT OKAY IF I CALL YOU MINE? On the further reality tv front, NBC's Fame, starring Debbie Allen, debuts tonight. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun-Times has the details on the search for the next great singer-slash-dancer.

If you think I'm going to use this slender thread as a cheap excuse to do then-and-now pictures of actor Paul McCrane, who played sensitive gay actor Montgomery MacNeill in the original Fame and currently throws righty on ER, well, you know me well:

REMINDER: The Amazing Race 4 debuts Thursday night at 8pm.

If you miss the best show on television, you have only yourself to blame. Set your VCR now.
NOBODY PUTS BEBÉ IN A CORNER: Dirty Dancing II: Havana Nights. It's coming.

Be afraid.
ENTERTAINERS BRING MAY FLOWERS: I am really torn up about the article on Liz Phair in the current Entertainment Weekly (subscribers only, I fear).

Basic point of the article -- Liz Phair is trying for mainstream success, even if it means mainstreaming her sound, and she doesn't give a damn what you think about it:
''I didn't want to be some '90s act that was great in my 20s and never did anything else,'' says Phair, tackling an appetizer of crab claws. ''People are like, 'Don't be commercial, then. Just be...Wilco.' And that's one way to live. But even when I made ''Guyville,'' I was hating indie then. The whole album was about how much I hated indie. I was sick to f---ing death of that snobbery. You know, I liked radio hits my whole life, including when I was cool. When Shakira goes [sings] 'Underneath your clothes...,' that works on me. So here's your question in life: Do you acknowledge who you are even if people don't like you for it? Even if people say, 'That's so lame'? Should I pretend to be cool so that you will approve of me? After I had my kid, the revelation I had was, Life is incredibly short. I like who I am. And I'm just gonna like what I like and go for what I want to go for. It's simple.''

So Phair's new album, "the brazenly glossy" Liz Phair is due on June 24, featuring the production work of the Matrix, the same people who designed Avril Lavigne's hits. Ugh.

And I've heard the first single already, "Why Can't I" -- and you can too, via this link. Triple ugh. It's 75% Lavigne, 25% Sheryl Crow, and all horribly, terribly banal.

But here's the thing: I want Liz Phair to be a huge star. She deserves to be. Her name should be on the lips of every teenage girl, and every guy from 18-54 should be mesmerized by her; see her as cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious; want her to be his blowjob queen.

Just not for this. Liz Phair should not become famous for watered-down pop music with generic lyrics. It'd be like Willie Mays being remembered for his years with the Mets, or the Grateful Dead only being known for "Touch of Grey".

No, Liz Phair should've made her mint off Exile In Guyville, her debut album, that magnificent, magical, intimate, introspective, nuanced, low-fi, completely awe-inspiring document of a complicated woman and her sexuality, one that sounded better than anything else out there, was better-written than anything else out there, with its worst track from its eighteen ("Never Said", imho) still leaps and bounds ahead of anything else. On Exile, girl-with-a-guitar Phair was sometimes vulnerable ("Divorce Song", "Canary"), sometimes triumphant ("Girls! Girls! Girls!), sometimes wistful ("Strange Loop"), sometimes horny ("Flower"), always compelling.

As Cynthia Joyce once wrote, "Sure, plenty of pop stars have inspired imitators, but Liz Phair was possibly the first pop star to make women feel like she was impersonating them." Or, as Scott Manzler put it, it's "a series of semi-fictionalized diary scribblings, the musings of a young woman locked in her bedroom as she practices her moves"

It was my favorite album of the whole 1990s -- yes, more than Nevermind -- and one I still listen to regularly.

But I'm not asking her to just record Exile all over again or for Phair to be the same person she was as a single woman in Wicker Park c. 1992, because it's clear she's not a one-hit-wonder. On whitechocolatespaceegg, songs like "Polyester Bride", "Perfect World" and "Uncle Alvarez" make clear that she's a solid artist capable of making vulnerable, complicated music even with a fuller, more mainstreamed sound.

That album -- with full Rolling Stone coverage and a radio-friendly lead single -- didn't make Phair the star she deserved to be. But instead of turning back to her base, she's running away from it, and I'm disappointed. Generic, bland and impersonal is no way to go through life.

But not angry. Look: she's 36 years old, so if mainstream success is ever going to happen for her, it's got to happen soon. And she's entitled to make money, make herself comfortable, allow herself to raise her son with a good nest egg. She's allowed to make the money that those who followed in the wake of Exile did in the space she created (Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Jewel, etc.). I just wish it didn't have to be this way.

Phair, of course, prepared us for this back in 1997, on "Shitloads Of Money":
It's nice to be liked
But it's better by far to get paid
I know that most of the friends that I have don't really see it that way
But if you could give 'em each one wish
How much do you wanna bet?
They'd wish success for themselves and their friends and
that would include lots of money

In a perfect world, this album is huge, and it leads lots of teenage girls to discover Exile In Guyville. In an imperfect world, it'll be chased off the charts by the latest flavor of the week in a fortnight, if it ever makes it there in the first place.

Good luck, Liz, and I hope you get what you want out of this.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

GIVES ELVIS MEETS NIXON A REAL RUN FOR ITS MONEY: May I present one of the most messed-up assemblages I've ever seen in one photo together?

From left to right, that's former New Edition star Bobby Brown, wife Whitney Houston, and their new best friend, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Does it beat Nancy Reagan on Mr. T's lap? Only history will decide.
OH BOY, HER THIRST: While American Brandstand has been dutifully cataloging product placement in hip hop music over the past few months, one song airing frequently on MTV and its sister stations lately deserves true recognition for being the kind of product shout-out a company doesn't want -- a fool's gold star, as it were.

I refer you to "The Jump Off", by Lil' Kim, on her new La Bella Mafia CD. Lil' Kim has new breasts, new nose and a big . . .
I got my eye on the guy in the Woolrich coat
Don't he know Queen Bee got the ill deep throat?
Uh! Let me show you what I'm all about
How I make a Sprite can disappear in my mouth

Lil' Kim: she likes the Sprite in you. A lot, apparently.

Monday, May 26, 2003

DAMN: Sixers coach Larry Brown will step down as coach and vice president of basketball operations at a press conference at 4pm today, apparently citing "fatigue, a feeling that it's time for the Sixers to move in a different direction and his relationship with his star guard Allen Iverson" as the key reasons. Read on.

I wonder if he'll dress as he did for this 1970's press conference while a coach in the ABA:

I wish he'd stay, but I thank Coach Brown for always doing things the right way. He brought this team further than anyone could have expected, and I am grateful for all he's done for the team and the city. Thanks, Coach.
AND NOW, AS PROMISED, THE VERY LAST WORD ON AMERICAN IDOL 2: TWOP's Shack brings the pain, and then some, regarding Clay Aiken's butchering of "Bridge Over Troubled Water":
Ryan introduces Clay back out to the stage to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Excuse me for a moment. I have to go choke back the bile. I knew that I was going to hate this performance before I ever even saw it, but I decided that I would give it a chance. Sure, the song needs a very subtle touch to keep from becoming overwrought and sentimental, instead of melancholy, yet uplifting. And sure, Clay all but brought The Frying Pan Of Talent with him out onstage. But there's a chance it could work. Couldn't it? Couldn't it?

No, it couldn't. First of all, the arrangement is terrible. It's all full of brass and strings and is loud and intrusive. There are some truly cringe-inducing brass riffs between verses that would sound tacky in a Vegas show. And the gospel choir is still out there. They're singing some fake verse and snapping their fingers as Clay heads out to the microphone. It looks like I'm watching a fucking televangelist right now. Clay heads out to the Substitute Seal in a Ryan-esque striped shirt with an oversized collar. I guess he didn't have enough time to button his cuffs when he changed. Everybody snaps and sways their way through the song. Clay's rendition is a very smarmy Buck Up, Little Camper rendition, as opposed to the Please Don't Kill Yourself, Because I'll Help You Through This version it used to be. Congratulations, folks. You turned "Bridge Over Troubled Water" into "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music. I couldn't be more pained by this rendition if Clay actually did climb through the television set and literally hit me in the face with a frying pan. I never want to hear Clay sing this song ever again. Ever. Never. Mind you, I don't hate Clay or his singing. Just as with Ruben, I don't give a flying fig about him anymore. I just hate this rendition of this song. Bring me the head of the person who arranged this backing orchestration and vocals. Right now. Just the head. I want to know that this will never happen again. The sheet music for this number needs to be burned, and then buried. And then salt the earth there so that nothing ever grows. And then pave the earth above it. And then build a Hardee's on top so nobody will even set foot there. The last note is like the king of glory notes. It adds nothing to the song at all other than "Look how high I can sing!" Hate it so much. Hate. A tiny piece of my soul just died.

Read the whole blessed thing via this link.
MORE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTING ERRORS: In its Sunday Magazine cover piece titled "The Young Hipublicans," author John Colapinto makes the following startling claim about one of Bucknell's young conservatives:
Determinedly middle class (his dad is an X-ray technician, his mom a teacher's aide), Boland can afford Bucknell's $35,000 in tuition and fees only with the help of financial aid. Studious and abstemious, he works hard to keep up a 3.9 G.P.A. For Boland, the effort that has taken him from a modest background to the top ranks of an elite university bolsters his conservative beliefs on self-reliance

Emphasis mine, because, really, Bucknell?

Now, it's a fine school and all, but elite?

According to U.S. News and World Report, twenty-eight liberal arts colleges are more elite, including Mt. Holyoke, Holy Cross and Colgate. And then there's the university list, and you could pick out at least forty schools there which are more prestigious or elite.

Again, it's a fine school -- don't get me wrong -- but one which accepts almost 40% of its applicants and attracts less than one-fourth its students from outside the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. A good school, sure, but not an elite one. Indeed, a recent article in its alumni magazine on the "arms race" between colleges noted that Bucknell's peer institutions were "Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate, and Carnegie Mellon". Again, all good schools, but other than Carnegie Mellon, elite?

Bucknell's website wants you to know that Bucknell is located in "Lewisburg, a beautiful Victorian town that is ranked as one of America's best small towns in the book Making Your Move to One of America's Best Small Towns."

The website fails to mention that Lewisburg is also the home of a true elite institution, USP Lewisburg, a maximum security federal prison with 1218 currently admitted residents. I wonder if they ever have mixers with the students . . .

Unless the author was trying to make a sly point about political correctness -- that every institution is deemed "elite" nowadays, so as not to hurt anyone's feelings -- I'm sure Howell Raines will be running a correction later this week.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

YIKES: So, I'm typing up that last post, and looking for a link for "Living Dolls" HBO's you-wanted-to-look-away-but-you-couldn't documentary on child beauty queens from two years ago, and what did I find out?

Remember Robin Browne, seven-year-old Swan Brooner's mother, the stage mom to top all stage moms? Intense, creepy, chain-smoking, obviously pained? If you saw the documentary, you remember her.

Well, she passed away back in February of an apparent heart attack at the age of 44. Worse, Internet sources report that there is now a custody battle underway between Robin's sister and Swan's absentee father for her two children -- Swan, now 9, and Devon, 7.

Donations on Swan and brother Devon's behalf may be sent to:
Jackson County Department of Social Services
538 Scotts Creek Road, Suite 200
Sylva, N.C. 28779.

Designate on the checks that the money is for the Brooner children and send donations to the attention of Mary Derks or Jolene Fox.

Jebus. As if this kid wasn't messed up enough having her as a mother, she's infinitely worse off without one at all. So sad.

edited to add (6/6/05) (but people keep coming here for this story, so I better update it): Her father, Hank Brooner, passed away in February 2005.
MY LATEST CRACKPOT IDEA: I don't know about you, but I love watching competitions like the National Geographic Bee and the Spelling Bee, both of which had their finals airing on television over the past week.

I find the competition to be absolutely gripping and, especially in the case of the Geography Bee, I love playing along at home. That competition, which sadly did not begin until 1989, when I was too old to compete, requires in-depth knowledge of world geography, geopolitics and culture -- actually useful stuff. Take a look at these questions from the finals to get a flavor for what's at stake.

(Side note: In contrast, I'm fairly anti-spelling bees as a general principle. I don't quite see the value in kids spending hours memorizing thousands of words that neither they nor anyone else will ever use. I'd rather they knew what words meant than how they were spelled, and prefer more useful bodies of knowledge like geography, math or science for these competitions. That said . . .)

And don't even get me started on WLVT's Scholastic Scrimmage, a regional high school academic competition I've been watching for years. Great television. (Finals: this Thursday, up against The Amazing Race. Damn.)

So anyway, why not have a cable network devoted to scholastic competitions? Basically, think Game Show Network meets Nickelodeon, or take the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? former trend and add youthful energy.

For programming, you could broadcast local, state and national-level spelling, math, geography, science and general knowledge competitons. In so, the network would bring new recognition and self esteem to our nation's insecure geek population.

Look: I was a former mathlete, and I'm no longer ashamed to admit it. Why? Because on Thursday at noon, ESPN is broadcasting the national championships of MathCounts, a competition for middle school students in which I competed at the city and state levels as an eighth grader. I'm psyched.

Given the success of Spellbound, the new documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, and given how much attention is given to kids who sing well (American Juniors, Star Search) or look attractive (Free Swan Brooner!), why not publicize good kids who happen to be really, really bright? And don't just do it because it's the right thing to do, to treat these kids as being as important as star high school athletes -- do it because it makes for good, exciting television.

C'mon: tell me you wouldn't want to see the 1990 Pennsylvania Citizen Bee finals, where I choked and finished in sixth because I had no fucking clue who Winslow Homer or the "ashcan school" was. Now take that moment of pressure and embarrasment, and multiply it across a 24/7/365 television schedule. Tell me you wouldn't watch.

Or maybe, I'm just nuts.
A WHATSIT, A WHO, AND A WHICH: A perennial favorite of mine, the 2003 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt lists are now online. Among the highlights for items sought:
9. We give you a number. You give us the Shakespearean sonnet. From memory. No, you don't have to memorize all of them. Just the ones that coincide with jersey numbers of Brewers legends inducted into the Miller Park Walk of Fame. [37 points. 9 bonus points if the Judges can read along in Rapanuian]

12. A team captain with his/her shoelaces tied together who has recently received a wedgie, a swirlie, an Indian burn, a wet willie, a titty twister, a kick-me sign, a pinkbelly, a dead leg, a typewriter, a noogie, a melvin, a ``got your nose,'' a doink (``what's that on your shirt? doink!'') and a monkey kiss. [26 points. 4 bonus points if this captain pulls the finger of a female teammember with predictable results]

33. Can you write in your mouth? Like, if we gave you a small pencil and a small piece of paper, could you put them in your mouth, close your mouth, and then somehow write ``gonk'' on the piece of paper? Start practicing. [41 points]

52. Make a menorah out of Easter M&Ms. [8 points]

118. All previous attempts at Harry Potter items have been utter failures, though the item conception was sheer brilliance. For god's sake, don't screw this one up. Send a Howler to remind the Head Judge to call his mom on Mother's Day. [60 1/2 points]

251. Foam Chomsky. [25 points]

And among the Olympics tasks needing to be performed, my favorites:
3. The Western Ave. Cup, or The Glengarry Glen Robstacle Course. This one takes brass balls, gentlemen. Have you got what it takes to be a salesman? We want to see Dave Moss, Richard Roma, George Aaronow, and Shelley ``The Machine'' Levene, each in proper attire (with umbrellas, too).
--Deliver any (substantial) monologue from the film.
--Buy us a pack of gum and show us how to chew it.
--Go on a sit. You must get a Judge to sign on the line which is dotted simply by sitting perfectly still staring firmly, while pointing your pen at them for five minutes.
--Find the leads.
--Sell them to Jerry Graff.
[First place is a new Cadillac, Second place is a set of steak knives, third place is you're fired. 35 bonus points if you can sell the leads to Professor Gerald Graff]

6. The Jolly Giant Cup. Present a meta-human, built from four enterprising teammembers (one person per leg, torso-people on their shoulders). Head to the local Big and Tall to dress them up right, as they suddenly become a singular being. You will be competing in a hundred meter dash. Like Voltron, your giant will need a head, and you can build it however you see fit, but it will be in the likeness of a great bald superstar chosen randomly at the Captains' Ice Cream Social. [50 points for first place, 40 for second, 30 for third. 20 points for participating]