Saturday, November 8, 2014

Three Guarantees in Life: Death, Taxes, and Ostracism of Anyone who Points this Out.

Remarks commonly made when something goes wrong:

That's life.

Such is life.

No one ever says THAT'S LIFE when great things happen. They're much more likely to utter something like "For once in this life something went my way!"

This should make us examine how we look at pessimists. If we all subconsciously accept that life is more tragedy than triumph, to the point where the word life is common shorthand for negativity,
we're being rather inconsistent when we reflexively accuse folks of being "glass half empty" people simply because they highlight life's non-stop struggles.

We're all legal experts when it comes to Murphy's Law. As a consequence most of us seek affirmation, which is why there are legions of calendars, greeting cards, and self-help books, to reassure us that somehow it's all gonna be okay. Seems to me the person who buys such a calendar is already admitting the pessimist's point. The pessimist doesn't need a calendar to remind him life is a downer. All he has to do is wake up in the morning.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death has a funny way of improving musicians

Any time an artist "dies too soon" - Amy Winehouse, Tupac Shakur, Jimi Hendrix - everyone assumes the artist would have gotten better. There is always the assumption of something great on the horizon: "He died at his peak." "He died just as he was truly finding his voice."

How come no one ever assumes they would have gotten worse? Why doesn't anyone proclaim that artistic burnout was just around the bend? Think about it, when people discuss musicians, they almost always say:

"I liked his early stuff better."

"They had that one good album..."

The common term for a disappointing album is a "sophomore slump," not a "seventh album slump."

With all the examples of artists who had one or two good records and then a lifetime of failing to replicate them, does it really make sense to always give dead young artists the benefit of the doubt?

Plus the posthumous stuff is nearly always a mixed bag (at best). Granted, the work may be unfinished or edited in ways the artist wouldn't have chosen. But still...if we're so assured that genius was just around the bend, why isn't the proof ever in the pudding?

What's funny is that we're just as forceful in our ridicule of artists who do keep going! How many times have the Rolling Stones had to answer for wanting to do another tour? Apparently they never learned the marketing lesson of dying early to keep folks pining for what could have been (not that Keith Richards didn't try).

If Axl Rose had died in '92, we would have been saved the cornrows. If Dylan had died at the release party for Blood on the Tracks, we wouldn't have had to suffer through his "Christian period."

Almost no one artist gets better with age, so it seems like a hell of a coincidence that every single artist whose "fire burned out too soon" was just about to give us a triple album of gold. In his farewell letter, Kurt Cobain apparently quoted Neil Young: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." By burning out, Cobain probably saved us the agony of watching him muddle through a twenty-year "experimental phase."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Too many films are now up to snuff

In our enlightened age, "damsels in distress" are supposed to be a thing of the past. Well, they are: because now we have damsels in pieces. Concurrent with the wails for better cinematic portrayals of women is a trend towards quasi-vivisections on screen. Each director seems determined to keep upping the ante for dismemberment. It's an arms race involving the removal of arms.

I recently saw A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson's latest movie. It makes Taken look like an obtuse art film. I won't give away any plot points (first there would have to be a plot), but a woman ends up duct-taped in the back of a van as two sadists with blades contemplate how they're going to slice her. Any time two knife-wielding psychos are hovering above a kidnapped woman wearing nothing but duct tape we can pretty much assume she won't be writing a Yelp review of her evening.

But that wasn't enough for this director: he also has the two knife wielding psychos call her a cunt! Being a serial killer is pretty bad, but a serial killer who sneers out the c word? Now you're really a monster! 50 years ago if you wanted to convey that a film character was sinister, you had him not shave. Today he has to be a Holocaust-denying pedophile who eats puppies for breakfast and doesn't recycle.

The two knife-wielding psychos also gratuitously explain to the victim (and the audience) the anatomical reorganization they're planning to perform on her. Evidently the director thought the audience needed to be told that knife-wielding psychos who kidnap women have been known to use the knives to cut their kidnapped women.*

Later in the film, even after we have learned this woman's fate, the film unnecessarily flashes back to the repulsive images in the van, once again putting the victim's imperiled countenance squarely on camera. This is putatively done to build suspense; the jeopardized woman shown earlier in the film is shown again to remind us that other characters are in if we'd forgotten that these killers, you know, kill and stuff. Of course this doesn't build suspense. At all; it just makes the film a gross-out endurance test** (exactly like those much condemned '80s slasher films that an esteemed thespian like Neeson wouldn't have been caught dead appearing in). I wish they had told me ahead of time I was paying $16 to watch a Ginsu infomercial.

Here's what is behind a lot of this: If you make cartoonishly violent action films, long on explosions, cardboard villains, and impersonal body counts, you're classed as a crappy action director. If you personalize the violence and make it "realistic," even surgical, and make the people committing it cartoonishly shuddersome, you can still pass yourself off as some kind of artist (see all the people fooled by Drive). But these supposedly more artful vivisection films are just as manipulative and cynical as the basest Schwarzenegger flick. Actually, their pretenses make them worse. At least True Lies knew it was just a big dumb action movie.

Remember those William Castle film gimmicks -  Smell-O-Vision, theater seats connected to electric buzzers? I anticipate a resurgence in cheap film gimmicks: Splatter-Vision! The Anato-Cam! Instead of a skeleton flying over the audience, how about a small intestine? Or we could have a Gallagher-style smashing of full bladders and stomachs onto filmgoers. Or let's do away with 3-D glasses and just issue specs whose lenses are made from pulled human skin! The great schlock artists of the past died too soon; we're braced for a new Golden Age!

The word rapey has entered the lexicon. It's time to add snuffy.

*Part of me also thinks the more unlikable we make the villains, the more we're able to rationalize the broader violence of the film. 

**When feature films are this graphic, how much different are they than violent porn? Not much...the main difference is that people will admit to watching movies like A Walk Among the Tombstones.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A nation of suits

Everyone derides generic execs with hackneyed answers as "suits." Then an exec talks with a little spice and they take to Twitter to demand his firing. Case in point:

Ted Bishop, co-owner of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, was ousted as president of the PGA of America over a tweet and Facebook post comparing golfer Ian Poulter to a little girl.

The TwitterSphere is now the ultimate "suit;" monitoring, policing, and destroying anyone who dares budge an inch from the ever shrinking lilypad of acceptable speech. You can't both bemoan boring suit talk while zealously enforcing a code of speech that leaves people with no option but to use suit talk.

It is especially funny that the generation of Twitter-Lynching is also the generation that wants their own Internet history made to disappear.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

No Man is an Island...unless he's a quarterback seeking recognition

When it comes to how an athlete's legacy is judged, the degree to which championship wins are factored in varies widely by sport. In baseball, being a no-ring stat god alone, e.g., Ted Williams, is usually more than enough to be considered an all time great. Not so in basketball or football; especially if you're a quarterback. When it comes to quarterbacks, Shannon Sharpe will tell you: "You don't even get to get in this discussion if you don't have a championship."

Dan Marino, who once held nearly ever passing record, "never won a Super Bowl," and this is mentioned frequently as a serious mark against him. Meanwhile Joe Namath, a pretty mediocre quarterback, is a legend only thanks to a Super Bowl victory.

In football, this YOU AREN'T GREAT WITHOUT A RING criterion is especially goofy. No sport, not even baseball, has as much specialization as football. In basketball, the players play both defense and offense. Same with baseball; you field and hit (unless you're a DH/AL pitcher). In football however, you are literally one or the other. Eleven entirely different men get on the field when it is time to play defense. Dan Marino was never responsible for a single defensive play; in other words, he didn't participate in 50% of the game, but somehow he will never live down not winning a Super Bowl while playing on just one side of the ball. The very fact that Marino could break that many records and still not win a Super Bowl shows how impossible it is to do it alone. Given how many moving parts there are in every single football play - defense or offense - effectively pinning it all on one player seems a bit absurd.

Maybe in the days when football players played on both sides of the ball this criticism was more valid. But pretty much no one has done that since 1962. It might be time to move on.

This whole line of thinking can be smashed quite easily: tomorrow you're starting your own football franchise with your own dough on the line. Who you do want at quarterback: Dan Marino, or Jim Plunkett? Don't give yourself a hernia trying to remember who Jim Plunkett even was...

As for why basketball greats like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley get more abuse for not winning the big one than Ted Williams or Ken Griffey Jr., well, I think part of it is simply that basketball is now a much more beloved/discussed sport than baseball, mainly because of a guy named Jordan. And when people think Jordan, they think championships; six, in fact. His Airness remade the game, and others' judgments of the game, in his image.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Income gaps mean class warfare. Brain gaps mean classroom warfare

Much is made of Einstein's poor academic record. The future scientific giant was a hopeless student, and his even more hopeless teachers failed to recognize his brilliance! This well-worn narrative is a tad exaggerated; when taking his college entrance exam Einstein knocked it out of the park in math and physics. Nevertheless, the Einstein example of classroom failure and subsequent success has been used to offer hope to academic laggards since at least the days of my youth.

It's a nice yarn, but on further analysis, it probably isn't the best story to share with kids who struggle academically. Underlining that the man with the greatest mind since Isaac Newton eventually managed to bring attention to his brilliance doesn't give the struggling student with the middle-of-the-road brain much to hope for: "So even though the strain of pre-algebra has me popping Ritalin like Tic-Tacs, all I have to do to overcome this is prove I understand space and time better than any mortal before me? Uh, what kind of GPA do you need to be accepted into the Crips?"

The subtext to the Einstein example is that grades aren't everything, and by extension, upsetting measurements like SAT aren't everything. The Einstein tale is part of the popular modern "wisdom" that we're all an equally skilled ball of clay waiting to be molded into excellence. The SAT just measures your test-taking ability, not innate cognitive skill, right? Good students are just kids who work harder thanks to the village's loving embrace. Careful teacher: your worst student might be contemplating a sequel to relativity!

Einstein aside, many of the brilliant, accomplished, visionary folks DID have their brilliance recognized by conventional means. It WAS able to be measured in some capacity.

Francis Crick attended Cambridge. Watson attended University of Chicago.

Stephen Hawking studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

Alan Turing...Cambridge.

William Shockley attended MIT and Caltech.

Tesla completed his four years in three years.

Marvin Minsky went to Harvard and Princeton.

Brin and Page met at Stanford.

Bill Gates did drop out of college...but it was Harvard. And he got a perfect score on the math part of the SAT.

Salk attended a high school for the gifted.

Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. In prep school he won academic prizes.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College; a virtual Rhodes Scholar factory. Wozniak failed to finish at Berkeley...

Because most people's measurements aren't stellar, they reflexively proclaim that measurements either don't matter or don't measure everything. Well no shit they don't measure everything. But if you look at a list of great achievers, you'll see that A LOT of them had at least some of their talent measured and recognized before their ultimate breakthrough. Einstein was very much the exception. John Q. Average is going to need a hell of a lot of intangibles to outrun Zuckerberg's tangibles (not to mention Zuckerberg's intangibles). And P.S.: Mark Zuckerberg also knows how to work hard.

An Einstein example in athletics - where every nook and cranny is measured to analyze a player's chances at success - is Jerry Rice. You routinely hear that Rice ran a poor (for a receiver) 4,71 time in the 40-yard dash. Great, but here are the times of some other dominant receivers: Randy Moss: 4:25, Terrell Owens: 4:45, Calvin Johnson: 4:35, Steve Smith: 4.39, Marvin Harrison: 4:38. Jerry Rice's "slow" time is a rarity. Most dominant receivers show much more speed in the NFL Combine and Rice's incredible success doesn't alter that. Pointing to the "slow" receiver to give hope to a kid who should probably consider another position (or sport) isn't doing the kid any favors.

This is just as true in school. You can tell a kid to dream without telling him to hallucinate. If he has no grip on calculus, make his dream to be an electrician; better yet, an electrician in business for himself. Incidentally, that will earn him a better living than many of the liberal arts hallucinaters outscoring him in class.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fashionable Superstitions: Food Allergies

Have you noticed all the new food "allergies" sprouting up; nuts, gluten, wheat. "Allergy" warnings on food packaging are becoming ever more verbose. I just ate some bread that came with a warning that it had spent time in the same hemisphere as tree nuts.

I'm going to be sensitivity-allergic and submit that maybe all these new food allergies shouldn't be classified as allergies. When you eat something, your body does indeed react. Red meat is generally harder to digest than chicken. Some folks are more bloated after yogurt than others. These are reactions that can be unpleasant. But of those two, only dairy is something people claim a distinct allergy to*. You don't hear much about red meat allergies. Given how the slightest unpleasant reaction is now called an allergy, perhaps that should change. Perhaps we should be warning people about foods whose name includes the letter C, O, or W.

If the slightest unpleasant reaction (sometimes imagined) is now termed an allergy, what isn't an allergy?

Spicy food can cause heartburn. Should that now be called an allergy?

Plenty of folks now claim to have celiac disease, obviously unaware of how serious actual celiac can be. Some people are more sensitive to sugar than others; imagine if everyone who couldn't handle intense desserts went around advertising their "diabetes."

What about alcohol? Alcohol is the one ingestible where people gladly look past all the side effects (and unlike many of the foods they do avoid, alcohol has little nutritional value). After consuming booze, even in moderation, people experience headaches, stomach aches, sensitivity to light, etc. Yet no one talks about having a booze allergy. They will however say they can't have beer because of the gluten...

The way popular usage has warped the word allergy, having a hangover should now be classified as a serious allergic reaction. Your body is telling you alcohol doesn't sit well with you. The side effects are much easier to measure than the supposed impacts of many of the foods people are now swearing off.

Everyone has different sensitivities, but as with all things, magnitude matters. Someone who sneezes slightly after spending a day in a dog kennel shouldn't be classed with the same word as someone who can't breath after a few minutes around a poodle. Unfortunately with food, that perspective has fled the stage. Given how perennially fat Americans seem to be, perhaps they are allergic to all that
"health food" they claim to be consuming. Or maybe the allergy labels are what's making us pudgy. There is as much science to that claim as there is to a lot of today's homespun "allergy" wisdom.

*Obviously, I'm not talking about genuine, harsh sensitivity to lactose, etc. Notice that those with that kind of hypersensitivity don't suddenly "discover" it after skimming an allergy article in Cosmo while eating an airport pizza.