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April 2011 Archives

April 28, 2011

Cursive culture wars

Kids learning cursive

Another generational bomb is going off in today's Times in an article about the decline of cursive handwriting in schools. The story is that college kids today rarely seem to know how to write, OR READ, cursive handwriting, which for some people is a sign of welcome progress beyond outdated modes of communication, and for some is a signal of the progressing dumbification of our country.

You can tell which side you fall on by your reaction to this anecdote:

Alex Heck, 22, said she barely remembered how to read or write cursive. Ms. Heck and a cousin leafed through their grandmother's journal shortly after she died, but could barely read her cursive handwriting. "It was kind of cryptic," Ms. Heck said. She and the cousin tried to decipher it like one might a code, reading passages back and forth. "I'm not used to reading cursive or writing it myself."

As with most debates like this, i.e. useless ones, people's opinions seem to be based almost exclusively on their own personal experience in elementary school when they were taught to write cursive. If you weren't good at it, you got bad grades, and you now hate cursive and think it's a waste of time to teach it. If you were good at it, you think it's a beautiful form of writing that should be preserved.

The comments section is vast and will probably become more passionate/indignant as the day wears on (one commenter calls the article "Boomer bait") but I guess that's the point of divisive little articles like this that the Times loves so very much.

Here's a comment highlight from Phil Greene in Houston: "I learned to type in the sixth grade and have written cursive since the first grade. This is just another sign of the dumbing down of America. I have three grandchildren who are as dumb as a post, and of course they can't write or multiply. They bore me to tears."

And from Scott in Nyack, whose anti-cursive ideology represents many commenters', i.e. vituperative rage directed at his teachers: "I recall getting straight A's in every subject in elementary school, but consistent D's in handwriting. As a result of this low penmanship grade, I never made the honor roll. By the time I entered high school, almost all our work was typed,and my straight A's continued to a great career in academia. The stupid nuns in 4th grade couldn't hold me down!"

I'll try to stay calm in presenting my own views: I like cursive and use it all the time (just checked grocery lists and notes lying around the house to make sure--yup, some lazy version of cursive) because if you know how to do it, it's faster than printing. For those occasions when you have to take notes or record something and using a keyboard isn't practical, writing in cursive is a useful skill to have, because it can be very fast. Just like reading a non-digital clock with hour and minute hands, and driving a car with standard transmission, having a skill is better than not having a skill. Technology makes it less necessary to have some skills, but in life, you're still better off being able to do more things. It's probably not worth spending a whole lot of classroom time on cursive (I think we only spent a week or so on it in 2nd grade) and if the handwriting revolutionaries are adamant about their God-given right to print, let 'em print.

Personally, when I write a word that ends with a "t", I do what my cool 5th grade teacher did and make a little upward curved arc instead of picking up the pen to cross it. I might be the only non-centenarian in America who does that. It's just faster.

If we want to get really practical, here, let's teach kids to write shorthand. Have you seen someone write in shorthand? That shit is FAST. I use a couple of shorthand symbols my mom taught me that are ridiculously easy and fast. With the decline of dictation and the typing pool, no one learns it anymore, but it's probably more useful than printing and cursive. I'm not entirely kidding.

April 22, 2011

Weird Al and Gaga

Weird Al Yankovic

Now that the confusion has been cleared up and Weird Al Yankovic's parody of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is going to be on his next album after all, let's take a look at his song, which is called "Perform This Way".

Well, huh. It's one of Weird Al's laziest parodies, isn't it? It's really just an extended, gentle ribbing of Gaga and her crazy outfits. And since the outfits that she really does wear are pretty much Weird Al-level weird to begin with (bees, meat) he doesn't have very far to go in that direction. Apart from "wrap my small intestines 'round my neck", I don't think he comes up with any ideas for a costume that she wouldn't actually wear. I wish he'd given it another 5 minutes to come up with a theme related to the content of the original song, rather than just saying "Haha, Gaga wore a meat dress, that is so cray-zeee!" It's like commentary on a Lady Gaga concert by Joe Biden.

How about "Shorn This Way", about drag sheep performers? Practically writes itself.

The best Weird Al songs are those that keep the original concept established by a pop song, then go in a completely different, AND FUNNY, direction. Some good examples of this:

"White and Nerdy"

"Amish Paradise"

"It's All About the Pentiums"

These are all hilarious and imaginative in a way that "Perform This Way" completely misses. I'm glad that Gaga had the sense to let him do the song, but I think Weird Al can do better than this for his first Gaga parody. Hope the video's better.

April 19, 2011

Oil spill victims

Victims of the BP oil spill in Mathews, LA

This is my favorite photo related to the BP oil spill. It was taken at a meeting about compensation claims. I love these guys. All the anger, desperation, and weary determination that people in the Gulf Coast have been experiencing for the last year is all over their faces.

The photo is part of an article about the anger people in the region have for Ken Feinberg and the shoddy treatment they're getting in the compensation claims process. By many accounts, the process has been inconsistent, opaque, slow, and generally ineffective in helping people affected by the spill. Feinberg's law firm has been running the victims' fund since July, and in that time have given out less than 20% of the total fund. And they recently got a raise from BP. It seems like whatever hatred people had for BP when it all started a year ago has now been transferred to Feinberg.

In response to complaints that the claims system doesn't work, the article says that Feinberg admitted "there may be inconsistencies. But I think those inconsistencies are relatively rare."

I'd like to see him stand in front of these guys from Mathews, Louisiana and say that to their faces.

There's a really good series of short articles about different people affected by the oil spill in the Times, including a restaurant owner, a shrimper, and a Vietnamese shipyard worker.

April 18, 2011

Hey everybody, it's TAX DAY!

Tax forms

There are a few different approaches you can take to paying your taxes:

  • Protest large corporations that rake in billions in profits yet somehow don't pay any taxes at all (e.g. MoveOn.org's protests at Bank of America and Boeing.)
  • Protest the very existence of a federal government and its tendency to spend money on things (e.g. the Tea Party's "out of control spending" rallies.)
  • Feel mild resentment about the things you don't support that you know your taxes are helping to pay for (wars, high fructose corn syrup) but pay anyway because it's the right thing to do, plus you have to.
  • Refuse to pay your taxes for 10 years due to a belief that law enforcement and the IRS are part of the "Zionist Illuminati", stockpile weapons, and end in an 8-month standoff with US marshals, like Ed and Elaine Brown of Plainfield, NH.
  • Derive a certain dorky satisfaction from doing your civic duty and making sure that you and the government and your fellow citizens are square. In more ways than one.

Related to that last approach (where I ended up this year) I really like what David Foster Wallace has said about taxes. In 2005, he wrote a letter while researching The Pale King, saying, "I have a vague, hard-to-explain interest in accounting and tax policy (utterly divorced from my own taxes, which I pay promptly and fully like an Eagle Scout)."

He's a little self-deprecating about his dutiful approach to taxes, but he's more profound in his essay about grammar, "Authority and American Usage", which appears in Consider the Lobster. In a discussion of politically correct language, he ends up comparing right and left ideological arguments about redistributing wealth through taxes, pointing out a huge mistake by the left in framing taxes as some sort of charity:

Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people's sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.

Along the same lines of paying taxes as a form of self-improvement, there's a great short essay on leftist fiscal policy website Our Fiscal Security called "Giving Meaning to Taxes". Here's an excerpt:

Most other things that require effort and sacrifice--family, service, charity, and volunteerism--have virtuous, or at least redeeming, meaning associated with them ... The stories we tell about tax day reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as citizens; they are devoid of civic meaning. Taxes pay for the things that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states and our country. When we lose sight of this, taxes are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as stewards of a common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes are our contribution to something important that is bigger than we are.

Let's thank our grandparents and great-grandparents for building the highway system, Social Security, and public universities, and pay our taxes with a cheerful, Eagle Scout smile.

April 15, 2011

The end of soaps

Tootsie, Southwest General

ABC's recent decision to cancel two of its long-running daytime soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live", is another nail in the soap opera coffin. Besides putting hundreds of people out of work in both LA and New York, it means fewer opportunities for young actors and writers to get their first decent-paying jobs. Say what you want about the quality and relevance of soap operas, but here are a few actors who got their start on the soaps:

(Those last four are Oscar winners.)

On the Soap Central website, there will only be four daytime soap operas left after the two ABC cancellations: "Days of Our Lives", "General Hospital", "The Young and the Restless", and "The Bold and the Beautiful", and since that last one didn't start until 1987 and only runs for 30 minutes, it barely counts.

But here's the real question: what does this mean for Tootsie? Tootsie is one of my very favorite movies, and while it will probably stand up just fine in a post-soap world, I wonder if younger generations will get all the jokes if they've never spent long afternoons watching "Guiding Light" while their grandmother smokes cigarettes and has her pre-dinner Schmidt's. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman lands a role in a fictitious soap, "Southwest General", after transforming himself into Dorothy Michaels.

Jessica Lange introducing herself as the "hospital slut". Patients going in and out of comas with every commercial break. Nurses having simultaneous affairs with doctors and patients. Leading men, pushing 70, who have weekly affairs with 22 year-olds. The live episode. The big "I'm Edward Kimberly!" reveal, which is a reference to a similar storyline from "General Hospital" in 1980, when Sally Armitage, played by a male cross-dressing actor, was revealed to be Max Hedges. Here's the entire fantastic Edward Kimberly speech.

That is one nutty hospital.

April 12, 2011

Melancholia trailer

Melancholia shot

Have you seen this trailer for Lars von Trier's new movie, Melancholia? That has Kiefer Sutherland in it?

It's a beautiful trailer, dark and foreboding as his stuff tends to be, but it has a lush, quiet beauty that's a departure from the howling desperation and genital crushing of Antichrist, his last movie.

As a testament to Von Trier's newfound ability to work harmoniously enough with an actress that she would agree to be in another one of his movies, Antichrist star Charlotte Gainsbourg also stars in this one, along with sad bride Kirsten Dunst, both Stellan Skarsgard and his foxy son Alexander, and the always phenomenal Charlotte Rampling. Von Trier has said it's his first movie to have an unhappy ending, because he's apparently forgotten what happens in all his other movies. This one seems to be about a troubled family at a wedding, moodily anxious about a planet (named Melancholia) that's about to hit earth and kill everyone.

But, of course, that won't happen. Because come on, we've all seen "24". We know Kiefer's going to go rogue, break into a local air force base, sacrifice his girlfriend as part of an emotionally agonizing but ultimately pragmatic negotiation to secure a military plane, fly into the stratosphere, and shoot nuclear warheads into the planet to blow it up before it hits the earth. Obviously.

April 11, 2011

Blank City

Blank City

There's a great new documentary playing at the IFC Center, Blank City, about the hyper-indie DIY filmmakers and musicians working in the East Village in the late '70's and early '80's. It's the "No Wave" movement: a bunch of people with no money, no training, barely any equipment, cheap rent, cheap drugs, and a lot of friends in bands with a lot of time on their hands. Here's the movie's website.

Out of this movement, we got Jim Jarmusch, Sonic Youth, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lydia Lunch, Charlie Ahearn (who did Wild Style about Fab 5 Freddy and the early hip-hop scene,) Susan Seidelman (who went on to do Desperately Seeking Susan,) and loads of other renegade filmmakers. My favorite title is They Eat Scum, by the depraved Nick Zedd.

It's really inspiring and fun to watch this breathless moment when so many artists were creating such wild and new stuff, and made me wish I could drop in on that time and place. Kind of like how I wanted to be in early-'70's LA after reading the debaucherous Wikipedia page for Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco. A.O. Scott wrote an especially great review about the movie and the scene: "Technique, polish, professionalism -- all of these were suspect. What emerged in their absence, under various names, were films that were at once rough and sophisticated, cynical and passionate, jaded and hysterical. Kind of like New York itself."

A good companion piece to this movie is a collection of photos by Brooke Smith, better known as Catherine Martin from The Silence of the Lambs, documenting the hardcore scene in New York in the early '80's. It's wistfully cute seeing all those baby-faced kids in their torn Agnostic Front t-shirts. (tx, ADM!)

A few related documentaries: last year there was one about Basquiat, The Radiant Child, and a few years ago, one about composer and musician Arthur Russell, Wild Combination.

Blank City opens in other cities in May and June.

April 2, 2011

Clair Huxtable vs. Billy Crudup

Clair HuxtableBilly Crudup

I'm still disappointed at how un-transcendent the new Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is, and I've been thinking of things that might have made it better and more fun to watch.

Here's one. There's a scene when Billy Crudup, playing a sort of manic literature professor and Byron scholar, recites the opening lines of "She Walks in Beauty", in order to emphasize Lord Byron's genius and the immortality of his words. But the way he says them is weirdly halting and raggedy, which totally overwhelms the language and the subtle rhythm of the lines.

Compare that to the first time a lot of my generation probably heard those words: as spoken by Clair Huxtable in a funny episode of The Cosby Show, "The Card Game". You can watch her smoothly and, I'm just going to say it, sexily recite the first stanza in the first two minutes of this episode here, starting at 1:45.

Did you realize Phylicia Rashad was that hot?

About April 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in April 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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