Saturday, September 29, 2012

Please mistress, may I have another Victorian novel?

You know a woman is going to be a bad date when she says, “I read a lot of literary fiction, so I’ve earned the right to read Hunger Games!” You know that remark is going to Part One of a biblical flood of babble, and that you’re going to have to roofie yourself just to deal with the pain.

But enough about my life…
About “literary fiction:” People talk about the lingering effects of Sunday school on children, how it injects them with guilt and warps their views on sex, pleasure, and just general happiness for years afterward. I think these commentators are on to something, and that similar guilt hangovers are spawned in regular classrooms; especially when it comes to recreational reading.
I continue to be surprised by how many adults apologize for reading “non-literary” fiction. You ask what they read, and they sheepishly say The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Why sheepish? Because they have succumbed to the shame dished out by all those throwaway English teachers they were forced to listen to in school; teachers who said you must read literature, not page turners! Now as adults they carry around guilt for picking Stieg Larsson over Emily Brontë. Instead of just reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and experiencing pleasure, they have to apologize for it or do penance by following it up with Wuthering Heights.
To carry the sex analogy further, it is like their first contact with reading was associated with pain—homework, being forced to endure coma tomes like Ethan Frome—and now they can’t experience the pleasure of reading without having some pain mixed in. They can’t read Hunger Games without thinking of their English teacher, their literary dominatrix shaking her head at them for committing the sin of reading something they enjoy. It runs so deep that even when they do “indulge” in a guilty pleasure like Hunger Games, the guilt keeps them from enjoying the full sensation. It is like reading with 3 condoms on.
We hear plenty about Sunday school survivors moping through life with all kinds of hang-ups about pleasure. We don’t hear about the hang-ups of adult readers. Hardened Sunday school grads struggle with things like their enjoyment of secular music. We laugh at them for it. We don't laugh at adult readers who struggle with their enjoyment of page turners.
I also think this need to be “literary” exists because even for adults, your taste in music and literature never cease to be pissing contests. Some folks are such slaves to the classroom mentality that in lieu of a GPA, they must find a way to put themselves on some form of honor roll.
I have not read Twilight or Hunger Games or the Stieg Larsson books. They might deserve all the bashing they get. But as I have posted before, I don’t believe in giving yourself homework. Reading, like anything else, is entertainment.
Speaking of entertaininment, isn't it odd that people don’t apologize for playing fantasy football or online poker; activities that are usually considered frivolous, but they do apologize for being caught with a copy of Hunger Games, even though reading it means they’re reading; an activity most people consider innately valuable?
You want some literary fiction with your reading? You need some pain? Next time you’re reading Hunger Games, take your free hand and smash your fingers in a leather-bound copy of War and Peace.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain

As we enter fall, where the days have less light and the weather slowly worsens, I am constantly on guard for morons (usually women) trying to tell me that they love the rain. That rain is romantic. That they love walking in it. That they love staying inside on rainy days (as if you couldn’t stay inside on a sunny day). Well this year, I’m not going to be a victim…
Rain as romance is a gimmick planted in people’s minds by romantic comedies, fake hipster curmudgeons, and “What Women Want” lists. Rain isn't the least bit romantic. I used to live in London, famous for its drizzle and fog, and I can tell you that after a few months of being pelted by rain the only thing I wanted to smooch was an exhaust pipe.

No one feels better in the rain. Not only is it a psychological downer; it afflicts you physically. That knee you twisted in pee-wee football? It’s fine in the summer. But let it start to pour a little: suddenly you’re limping and hating your dad for assuming that every fat kid is a born right tackle.
Doctors do not prescribe wet, gloomy climates for any ailment.

Depressed? Prescription: sunshine.
Arthritis? Prescription: sunshine.
Respiratory problems? Prescription: sunshine.
And winter isn’t much better. Sleet and cold are only sexy in the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (the most lascivious song ever). In real life, cold and sleet is a formula for a night alone watching deadening Internet porn.
People have to invent “romantic” activities—sitting by the fireplace, etc.—to help them cope with the horrible effects of rain. Sunshine on the other hand is romantic in and of itself.  Hot, sunny weather means less clothing, which is a thousand times more romantic than the most form-fitting raincoat. It is amazing that soggy deathtraps like London and Seattle have sold the world on this notion of drizzly romance. I should get the head of Seattle tourism to revamp my Internet dating profile.
If women are allowed to say rain is romantic, men should be allowed to say that gangbangs are romantic. At least gangbangs encourage human interaction. Rain causes people to burrow away like anti-social rodents.

And if you do get "caught in the rain," that apparently romantic event, the first thing you do is DRY OFF. No one gets soaked and says, "Well, we both look like wet dogs...time to hop in the sack!" 
Any day you have to carry an umbrella is a day you should have stayed in bed. From now on I’m only staying in hotels called The Four Summers. The only rain I want to see is the kind Travis Bickle talked about: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to judge a comedy book by its cover

I just finished John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. After hearing about this must read comic novel for years, I finally broke down and read it. It was okay. There are some laughs in the last 50 pages, which is a little light for a 400-page comic novel. So contrary to what I had heard and read, it was not the funniest thing of all time (I wonder if the dramatic story of its publication helped inflate its reputation).

But I can be forgiven for thinking it is the greatest comic novel ever. Just listen to some of the critical accolades printed on the cover:
Washington Post: “A corker, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book.”
New York Times: “nothing less than a grand comic fugue.”
New York: “An astonishingly original and assured comic spree.”
Here’s how you know the book is not that funny; when every single glowing review is written in the least funny way possible. People who know funny never say things like “grand comic fugue” or “assured comic spree.”
Imagine you heard someone talk like this in real life:
“Hey, you know who you should invite to the party? Dave. Yeah, Dave. Why? Because he is a grand comic fugue.”
“Look, I know the divorce was tough, but you gotta get back out there. I’ll introduce you to my neighbor Alice. She’s an assured comic spree.”
Any guy in his right mind would hitch a ride on the space shuttle to avoid a date with a woman sold him to him as an assured comic spree. And no one who knows funny would ever say “grand comic fugue.” Or corker. You know when you say corker? When you’re making fun of someone who doesn’t know how to describe comedy.
Now contrast those pretentious accolades with the original New York Times review of This Is Spinal Tap; the greatest comedy of all time:
Not a single moronic line about it being a corker, an important film that elevates our national wit, or a cherry-topped comic dessert for those with a comedic sweet tooth. Probably because Spinal Tap is actually funny.
Not only are lines like "assured comic spree" obnoxious; they don’t actually describe anything. AT ALL. An assured comic spree gives no useful indication of the book’s tone or approach. It’s like calling a metal album loud. Yeah thanks, Professor. I’ll be sure to read your book on post-colonial tinnitus to help me figure out that Black Sabbath isn’t whispery.
Critics are frequently useless, and are nearly always useless when it comes to writing about funny. And unfortunately, comedians and comedy writers are always the least listened to when it comes to the topic of comedy. For some reason Katie Couric is allowed to tell Jerry Seinfeld what comedy means in the aftermath of 9/11. After all, what does Seinfeld know about anything? He’s just a comedian.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney isn't Reagan; He's Dewey

Romney, like all Republican hacks, says the word "Reagan" almost as often as he says "the." Mitt uses "Reagan" likes it's a comma. In reality, Mr. Romney has much more in common with a certain Thomas E. Dewey of DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN fame.

Both had been presidential bridesmaids before. Dewey made an unsuccessful run for President in '44 (and in '40). Romney made an unsuccessful run in '08.

Both men ran on the heels of a Republican surge in Congress. Both surges were described by those doing the surging as "a mandate." In Dewey's day, the '46 elections were said to be a mandate on the New Deal. In Romney's time, the '10 elections were supposedly a mandate on programs like Obamacare (how uncomfortable for Mr. Romneycare).

Both faced a beleaguered incumbent. At one point in '48, Truman sported an approval rating of 36%.

Both were liberal (by Republican standards) governors of famously liberal states (Dewey New York, Mitt Massachusetts); making them suspicious to Republicans elsewhere in the country. Perhaps this is part of the reason their opponents focused their campaigns on the desperate need to "nominate a real conservative;" making the races a bit of an "anyone but Romney/Dewey affair." In 1948 Dewey's opponents even convened to construct a delegate strategy to stem "the Dewey blitz." They failed.

Both were accused of insufficiently differentiating themselves from the incumbent; basically offering a series of overly cautious "me-tooisms." This approach made it easier for Truman to seem like a tough talker, and will likely afford Obama the same opportunity. Don't be surprised if before long we're hearing, "Give 'em Hell, Barry!"

The big difference is that Dewey was very much expected to win. No one expects Mitt to steamroll Barack. So Romney can reference Reagan all he wants. The rest of us know how this movie ends. The headline this November will be OBAMA DEFEATS ROMNEY.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Maximum Wages and Minimal Prospects

This week Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund, talked of a "lost decade" for the economies of Southern Europe.

This dovetails with a piece published last week by Deutsche Bank (h/t Zerohedge) on "Why the PIGS are Out of Luck." Says Zerohedge:

There are three key factors to modeling trade flows - or relevance - in a post-globalization world. While competitiveness is important, countries gain from being generally 'Technology-rich', 'Labor-rich', and/or 'Resource-rich'.

Analysis of Global Competitive Advantages

Among those in the "no particular advantage" category: The PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

Normally in times of collapse, we think of countries becoming havens of cheap labor (which helps their recovery). But because of the PIGS's harsh union laws and pools of regulatory quicksand, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain cannot become competitive with a LABOR RICH country like Vietnam without a marked adjustment of their labor laws; actually, of their entire societies. That is likely to take years (if it happens at all), so the process whereby the PIGSs become competitive relative to Vietnam probably isn't even a medium term prospect.
Also, a country like Greece has little manufacturing. The infrastructure and labor force with the appropriate skills to manufacture is already in place in Vietnam, where the labor is much cheaper. Which country would you choose?

A standard way of becoming more competitive is to devalue your currency. As long as the PIGSs remain velcroed to the euro, they will be stuck with a strongish currency (at least relative to a hypothetical lira or peseta) which combined with their labor laws and regulation will keep them extremely uncompetitive.

The old argument in favor of countries like Italy or Spain was that they were more stable than the emerging world, as they had the "rule of law" (kind of). Now that that too seems to be breaking down, exactly what do those countries have to offer?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revolution deletes its children

So along came the Internet. And in addition to eliminating costs across every industry; for many of the glamour industries, it eliminated profits too.

It didn't make newspapers more profitable. It made newspapers disappear.
Online music: contrary to the prediction that musicians would finally start keeping their earnings, instead there were no earnings to keep; for musicians or record companies (or record stores).
As Chris Anderson discussed in the The Long Tail, in the Internet age, a few big players make everything. Everyone else is toast.
Now the non-glamour part of the spectrum is suffering too. Online shopping is toppling the big box stores like dominoes. What can they possibly do to compete? Amazon doesn't need octogenarian greeters to get the job done.
The Internet is so efficient that not even Internet companies are able to make money. The online revolution so far: out with the old AND out with the new.


Monday, September 3, 2012

YouTube is smarter than you

Watching YouTube can be a humbling experience. It starkly demonstrates how unreliable peoples’ memories really are. How many times have you been telling people about some commercial you saw the night before or some crazy sports play you remember, and then to verify what you’re saying, you go: “Look it up on YouTube.”

So the whole office gathers around your desk as you type it into YouTube. The clip comes up…oh, what’s this? That sports highlight you told everyone to watch wasn’t as unusual as you remember it being. The commercial you referenced had a completely different ending from the one you told everyone about. It’s deflating…and you will sit there thinking to yourself: I WAS SO SURE THIS WAS HOW IT WENT.
And here’s how insane we are: Rather than admit that your memory isn’t 100% accurate, you will actually say something as ridiculous as: “I must be thinking of some other time Larry Bird stole an inbound pass from Isiah Thomas in the closing seconds of game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.”
We can’t admit our memories are wrong, even in the face of incontrovertible, easily accessible evidence.
Now think of all the people who have been convicted on the back of eyewitness testimony.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Can You Imagine an Impressionist Actually Making You Laugh?

When a comedian does a standard impression; Bush saying nuke-you-ler, Clinton pointing with a bent finger, audiences laugh so hard they herniate discs. Heads fly back, mucus coats the walls, quadraplegics wake up and start doing Pilates, hot chicks offer to pick up the tab. Chaos.

I don’t find standard impressions remotely funny or impressive, and am totally baffled by the effect they have on audiences. For starters, 99% of impressionists are just doing impressions of other impressionists. All those hacks you saw doing Shatner impressions in the 80s? They were just aping Kevin Pollack’s impression. They saw he got famous with it, so they added Pollack’s exact version of Shatner to their toolkit. They brought nothing new to the party.
But even if they had added a new wrinkle to the standard Shatner impression, who cares? Being able to sort of sound like someone isn’t that impressive. You know who else can mimic people? P-A-R-R-O-T-S. I’ll take a cross-species impression over some comedy dinosaur doing a bad Pacino at a Holiday Inn.
The only time I find an impression funny is when the person doing the impression perfectly encapsulates what that person would say and do in a particular scenario. Example: George W. Bush at a taco stand.
Most hack impressionists would just have Bush ordering “nuke-u-ler hot sauce,” and then stand back as the crowd laughed like laughter was a new fuel that was going to make us energy independent. But Bush saying nuke-u-ler hot sauce isn’t funny. Anyone can memorize and repeat someone’s stock phrases. That isn’t a talent, and it certainly doesn’t conjure up the person being impersonated.
A funny impressionist (a breed that is probably in the single digits) would instead simulate the kinds of words George W. Bush would say and the kinds of behaviors he would exhibit while talking to a woman at a taco stand, and would do it so that you could envision the man you know from seeing him talk to heads of state suddenly shooting the breeze with Tina Tamale.
When I say capturing someone’s essence, I don’t mean: “Picture Robert De Niro as a farmer. You balkin’ at me? You balkin’ at me?” Stuffing a line from someone’s film career into an absurd situation isn’t an impression. That’s the kind of garbage they do on SNL, which is packed with sketches where cast members just fill time sort of sounding like celebrities. They never capture the person (half the time they just pick a cast member who kind of looks like him). To see it done well, check out Mr. Show; a sketch show with idea-driven sketches that sometimes features impressions; all of which place less emphasis on mimicking a guy’s facial tics and more time copying his character.
Howard Stern is an underrated impressionist. Stern doesn’t do the voices so much as he skillfully pinpoints how the person he is impersonating would respond to whatever situation he is inventing for him. When he would do the news, he would so seamlessly distill the celebrity in the newsstory that it didn’t matter that he didn’t always sound like him. You still knew you were listening to Madonna.
Another master of recreating someone’s essence is Norm MacDonald; not shocking then that he was fired from SNL. Of course, Norm is the funniest person in the English-speaking world and everything he says is gold, which sort of skews the data.
Probably the worst offender in the impressionist lexicon is the “Man of a 110 Impressions.” If you ever see that on a flyer at your local comedy club, go bowling that night. Nevermind that 109 of his impressions sound exactly alike; the mere fact that he says “Here’s Moe from the Three Stooges” is supposed to distract you from the fact that his Moe sounds exactly like his Tom Brokaw. Quantity over quality does not work with impressions. Impressions aren’t Wal-Mart.
Remember: a funny impression, a real satire of a person isn’t about forcing a line from Taxi Driver into a De Niro impression; it is about what De Niro would say in a specific situation. De Niro might be a bad example actually…that pretentious cadaver can barely talk.