Culture Archives

February 20, 2014

Stop explaining, James Franco!

James Franco in a wig

I've had fun watching the ongoing experimental performance art that is James Franco's career. First he stars in the Spider-Man movies and a Julia Roberts romance. Then he's on "General Hospital" playing a tortured artist named "Franco". Then he's hosting the Oscars. Then he's directing tiny indie movies about Hart Crane and Sal Mineo, and an impressionistic adaptation of As I Lay Dying. Then last year he played an ingeniously unflattering version of himself in This Is The End, and Florida drug dealer Alien in the craziest movie of the year Spring Breakers. And also starred in Oz the Great and Powerful, which wasn't good by anyone's standards but was a huge hit. Oh, and he's also had shows in art galleries and appears to be pursuing doctoral degrees at several top universities simultaneously.

James Franco is the only person I can think of whose career is in itself a smart commentary/critique of what it means to be a movie star, while also actively being a movie star. He's wildly prolific, and takes on incredibly disparate projects that I assume he's doing because he's genuinely interested in trying new things. Especially if those things fuel speculation about his sexuality, like the "30 Rock" episode where his character, "James Franco", is having a secret romance with a Japanese body pillow, or last year's Interior. Leather Bar., which he directed and starred in, which re-imagines 40 minutes of gay S&M footage cut from Cruising. I don't know what he's doing, exactly, but I admire him for it.

But his latest trend of writing these explanatory pieces for the Times are starting to ruin it. Last year he wrote about why he posts so many selfies on Instagram, describing the up-close-and-personal access the public feels like they're getting through the celebrity selfie. Today he's got an opinion piece about Shia LaBeouf's recent anti-celebrity antics, which he thinks are part of LaBeouf's effort to "reclaim his public persona." It's a smart piece, and I'm sure his ideas about why famous people rebel against celebrity are accurate.

But he's too close to tipping his hand. I don't want to read James Franco's essays about how his appearances on "General Hospital" dismantle the hierarchy of entertainment. I just want the freaky, confusing experience of watching his scenes on YouTube, which he pretty much pulls off. I want to be confused. Whatever James Franco is doing is a lot more interesting when he does it without explanation.

Out of the ten (!) movies he's got scheduled to come out later this year, one is an adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. He's directing. And playing Benjy. It will also feature Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. This movie sounds utterly impossible and probably disastrous, but I want to see it anyway -- I just don't want to read Franco's philosophical musings about his craft and why Caddy smells like trees.

July 25, 2013

TUSH 2013

Get Lucky, Daft Punk, TUSH 2013

It's late July, so this year's Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH, should already be out there, everywhere, an indelible, unavoidably catchy presence in your life.

So here it is: TUSH 2013 is "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk.

I suppose there's a potential title-holder in the other hit song to feature Pharrell, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", but that song has several strikes against it:

  • "Blurred Lines" came out all the way back in March, while "Get Lucky"'s release date of April is closer to the ideal early-summer TUSH debut.
  • "Get Lucky" is groovy, irresistibly catchy, features Nile Rodgers on guitar, and is 1,000 times better than "Blurred Lines".

So even though "Blurred Lines" is actually at the top of the charts right now, "Get Lucky" meets more of the classic TUSH criteria: I hear it more often, and I like it a lot more. Random people polled by New York Magazine apparently agree--GL beat BL in a person-on-the-street survey conducted in both Times Square and at 125th Street, which is close enough of a cross-section of America for me.

This is the second year in a row that a non-American has grasped the TUSH. In recent years, it's been someone like Black Eyed Peas or LMFAO, but last year it was "Call Me Maybe" by Canadian singer Carly Whatever Whatever. It's even more audacious that this year's TUSH was generated by a couple of French techno robots.

I for one support the international-robotification of the TUSH!

Note: Canadian 80's rock band Loverboy should claim a little bit of credit for "Get Lucky"'s TUSH victory because of their 1981 album of the same name. This album features enduring cheeseball classic "Working For the Weekend" and, in my opinion, the greatest cover art of all time:

Loverboy's Get Lucky

June 5, 2013

Don Draper hallucinates, again

Don floating in a pool on Mad Men

I've mostly been liking this season of "Mad Men", and I've appreciated the many surprises and odd happenings that have popped up a show that was getting dangerously predictable. In particular, I liked the surprise merger, the disorienting break-in of Don and Megan's apartment by the kids' "grandmother", and every exchange between Joan and Peggy (especially this week's), whose relationship has always been one of the show's best and most complicated.

But one aspect that's getting irritating and sometimes comical is the overuse of hallucinations. Don Draper seems to hallucinate with such startling frequency that it's got to mean one of two things: his grasp on reality and overall psychological health are rapidly disintegrating toward total psychosis, or the show's writing is too reliant on a schlocky, soapy crutch. Do normal people hallucinate as much as as Don does? Of course not--just like amnesia is a much more common problem on daytime television than in real life--but it sure is a convenient plot device!

In the last couple of seasons, here are the times Don has hallucinated (that I can remember) and the alleged cause of his hallucination:

If we're supposed to conclude from all this that Don Draper is living on the razor's edge of sanity, and starts seeing things that aren't there whenever he runs a temperature or uses even the most pedestrian of recreational drugs, then OK, our protagonist is highly mentally unstable. If we're supposed to see hallucinations as a metaphor for the destabilizing, chaotic changes the American culture was going through in the late 60's, I can live with it, but it's clumsy and obvious. But if the writers keep using hallucinations because it's an easy way to visualize Don's emotional state and the people and things that he's haunted by, then they've really got to come up with something new.

My favorite thing in this week's episode are Don's sunglasses and Harry's rented Mustang.

Don, Roger, and Harry in the Mustang on Mad Men

April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers poster

(Warning: spoilers)

I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.

The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.

The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.

And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.

There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."

So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?

This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.

April 4, 2013

Catholic Church shifts gay

Cardinal Dolan loves gay people

(I've fallen behind lately, so now I'm catching up on stuff from the past few weeks.)

We've all been hearing how our nation's recent pro-gay shift is one of the fastest cultural swings anyone can remember. Just a few years ago, most Americans were against same-sex marriage and most of the red states were busily amending their constitutions to ban it forever. Now the majority is pro-marriage equality, it's legal in more states, the Supreme Court is hearing important cases, Bill Clinton apologized for DOMA, and a few Republicans might even be starting a cute but probably doomed flirtation with equal rights (when it benefits them and their immediate families, of course.)

But the biggest surprise for me has been seeing some evidence that the Catholic Church might be reconsidering. This is an institution was still doing Mass in Latin in the mid-60's. But did you see the Times' article from a few weeks ago about Pope Francis and his behind-the-scenes attempt to get the church to support same-sex civil unions in 2010? Apparently while debates were going on in Argentina, where he was Cardinal, most bishops were flat-out against gay marriage. The Cardinal was publicly against it, too. But in private, the future Pope was trying to change the church's opinion--if the church still wouldn't perform same-sex marriages, what's the harm in supporting the government doing civil unions?

Anyway, he was voted down, gay marriage went through, and now it's legal. The Catholic Church lost, but Francis showed that he considers human rights and political realities in his doctrinal thinking. It will be interesting to see what he says now that he's Pope.

A few days ago, New York's Cardinal Dolan also spoke about marriage equality on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. It sounds like he was going for an approachable, humanist tone, but he came off with a standard "hate the sin, love the sinner" message that's more about being nice to gay people than making sure everyone has equal rights.

"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said. "And I admit, we haven't been too good at that. We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."

[That "try our darnedest" stuff is exactly what he really sounds like--I happened to hear him speak at a marriage prep class, and he's full-on small town Midwest gee whiz. I can't tell how much of an affectation it is.]

He went on to say that gay people are entitled to happiness and "friendship", but they're disobeying God if they want to get married.

These aren't radical shifts, but with Cardinal Dolan happily proclaiming on national TV that he loves gay people and joyfully hoisting his disco stick (above) the new Pope's history of advocating for equal rights, it's going to be interesting time ahead.

March 5, 2013

Hands On a Hardbody

Hands On a Hardbody

One of my favorite documentaries of all time is 1997's Hands On a Hard Body, which tells the story of an East Texas car dealership's publicity stunt of giving away a tricked-out Nissan pickup truck to the contestant who can keep one hand on the truck the longest. It goes on for many days. These kinds of contests aren't unusual, at least in Texas, but this documentary is the best kind of human drama--the stakes are high, the competition is physically and psychologically agonizing, and the contestants represent a wonderful cross-section of real-life Americans that I don't think the world's best casting director could have improved.

So of course I had to see the new Broadway musical Hands On a Hardbody, which is in previews. When you look at this production, it looks pretty weird: the book is by Doug Wright, who is most famous for winning a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, about a transgendered woman in Nazi Germany. BUT: Wright is from East Texas, so there you go. The music is by Trey Anastasio from Phish. I was a little worried about how jam band noodlings would work in a Broadway musical, but the songs are very catchy and represent a great range of American music: rock, country, soul, and gospel. I think it's going to do well--reviews come out in a couple of weeks.

One of the best things about the musical is that it adapts the fragmentary documentary into a narrative structure, and ties the contestants together into a coherent group, all driven by one thing: economic desperation. These people don't just think it would be nice to have a fancy truck, they really, really need this truck. There are stories of unemployment, families falling apart, and how much it sucks to be poor and stuck in a crappy little town. It's like if you take the original documentary and filter it through A Chorus Line, you'd get this musical.

Steven Soderbergh recently said that he's hoping to direct some theater now that he's stepping back from movies. This is just the kind of thing I think he'd be great at, if he decides to go big and commercial instead of doing oblique little Off-Broadway stuff. Lately his movies have been all about money and what people will do to get it. We don't often see poor, desperate people in big Broadway musicals, but maybe this will inspire him.

My main hope for this musical is that it will finally bring a proper DVD release for the documentary. Right now, used VHS seems to be the only way to see it (DVDs are selling for over $100!) It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, either. But if the show's a hit, maybe more people will get to experience the original in all its glory.

NY Magazine has an interesting explanation of the onstage truck, which the cast members move all over the stage with remarkable ease. It's a 2001 Nissan with the engine removed, on invisible rolling casters. Cool.

October 4, 2012

Horror candy

Combining two of life's greatest pleasures, horror movies and candy, Cadbury has come out with a funny series of ads for its exciting new candy: Screme Eggs. These have been available in the UK since last Halloween, but it looks like we're just getting them for the first time.

Here's my favorite ad, a riff on werewolf/mummy movies, complete with egg gore:

And a good zombie-attack/"Thriller" video one:

And an apocalyptic news cast:

The ads are all on Cadbury's Creme Egg Canada YouTube channel, so I doubt they'll be aired in the US. (Too scary?) Since they were made for Canada, there are both French and English versions, but conveniently, the only line of dialogue in either language is "goo". The international language of candy snot.

Here in New York, they're priced at a borderline outrageous $1.00 per egg, and the only real difference from the regular Creme Eggs is that the cream/snot on the inside is green instead of yellow. And they're still so ridiculously, brain-meltingly sweet that they produce the all-too-familiar sequence of symptoms:

1) euphoria
2) delirium
3) disorientation
4) nausea

Maybe it's best to just stick to the ads.

August 27, 2012

Next deadly campaign in Iraq: American food

Iraq fast food

The US military may have ended its war on Iraq, but US pizza is just getting started. In the most promising indicator that Iraqis are ready to end their chapter of violence and conflict, Baghdad residents have embraced the kind of high-calorie, artery-busting fatty fast food that Americans have shoved into their gaping pieholes for decades. As the leader of a local private equity firm opening new restaurants says, "Iraq is a virgin market."

The restaurants serving this food have created some delightful new names to market the previously unknown levels of gluttony that Iraqis can now enjoy while they slowly destroy their health. The AP reports:

Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its glossy menu touts Caesar salads and hot wing appetizers along with all-American entrees like three-way chili, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound "Big Mouth Chizzila" burger.

"We're fed up with traditional food," said government employee Osama al-Ani as he munched on pizza at one of the packed new restaurants last week. "We want to try something different."

The traditional Arabic restaurants long popular here now find themselves competing against foreign-sounding rivals such as Mr. Potato, Pizza Boat, and Burger Friends.

And my favorite Baghdad restaurant, which demonstrates the durability and ingenuity of American branding: Florida Fried Chicken.

A doctor at a Baghdad hospital warns of the downside of the fast food craze, probably after watching the Americans occupying his country stuff their faces with crap for the last 10 years: "The opening of these American-style restaurants ... will make Iraqis, especially children, fatter."

Welcome to the first world, Iraq! Manufacturers of hypertension medication and elastic-waist pants share your enthusiasm for Western culture.

June 27, 2012

Cannibalism comes to the theater


The last few weeks have given us an alarming number of cannibalism stories in the news, so what better time to launch a new production that brings this trend disgustingly to life, onstage in the theater?

Horror director Stuart Gordon, who also made 1985's outstanding mad scientist classic Re-Animator (above), will direct a new play called Taste, which is based on the story of Armin Meiwes, the German man who killed and ate a guy he met online, and videotaped the whole thing in some extreme instance of sadomasochism, so he claimed.

Stuart Gordon is a guy who clearly understands the comedy of horror--his last play (which opened in LA, like Taste will) was Re-Animator: The Musical, because the only way you could make that movie more gleeful and sick is to add some "cheerfully perverse" song-and-dance numbers, to use Gordon's own phrase. The audience in the first few rows get totally covered in blood. It's coming to New York in July!

Taste will be one of many artistic interpretations of Armin Meiwes: several European metal bands have written songs based on his story (including the excellent "Mein Teil" by Rammstein, which has a phenomenally disturbing video) and Keri Russell starred in a movie called Grimm Love where she studies a Meiwes-like cannibal in Germany for her graduate thesis. Meiwes delayed the release of the movie in Germany when he sued, claiming the movie used his private story without permission. Eventually the German court decided he didn't have much of a privacy claim because he'd done loads of interviews and signed a marketing contract with a production company after his arrest.

I'm sure this will be a fun, gross-out, freaky kind of play, but how about if after this we all decide to put the brakes on eating each other for a while, OK?

June 14, 2012

Early TUSH considerations

Call Me Maybe

It's only June, so the 2012 Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH, might still be a twinkle in The-Dream's eye, but some early activity in pop song market saturation is requiring our attention.

You've heard "Call Me Maybe". It's undeniably catchy, it's been on TV, and its spin-off videos and cover versions (The Roots and Jimmy Fallon, Bieber et al, NPR reporters) are getting even more attention than the original video. You probably can't remember the name of the Canadian teenager with the Deschanelian bangs that sings it (Carly something something, right?) but for now, that's incidental. We might have the makings of a TUSH on our hands.

Personally, I like my TUSHes to possess at least some passing whiff of soul or funk or something besides cute Canadian bubblegum. Also, the song was released way back in February--a classic TUSH bursts decisively onto the scene and is suddenly, unavoidably everywhere, instead of creeping up slowly on world domination. But even though it's taken 16 weeks to get there, "Call Me Maybe" is now at the top of the charts. New evidence suggests that the song has already burrowed its way into our psyches, because it's started generating its own references to the events that define our times:

Call Me Maybe Facebook face-eating joke

Most of the songs on the Billboard 100 have been kicking around for months (Gotye is still up there?!) so we're due for some spankin' fresh TUSH action. Carly whatever whatever's days as Queen of the TUSH may be numbered, but she's got it for now.

May 16, 2012

NY Times hits new height of NY Times-iness

Mother and daughter, freezing eggs together

The closest thing we've got to a national, general interest newspaper is probably The New York Times*, but the paper itself seems to possess an exasperatingly adorable fixation on its imagined core audience: super-privileged white people. Non-rich Times readers roll their eyes, but we've grown accustomed to their fussy little non-news human interest stories on the lives of the very fancy, such as the difficulty of finding repair service for high-end kitchen appliances in vacation homes, yoga for dogs, and the article guaranteed to turn me into a sputtering indignant crazy person, the one about wealthy Ivy League-educated young mothers who decide they don't want to work anymore and wonder whether or not that makes them feminists, when what it really makes them is rich.

This week, the Times has almost out-Timesed itself with an article called "So Eager for Grandchildren, They're Paying the Egg-Freezing Clinic". It's got everything for the elite: the compromised fertility of aging single women, over-involved parents, and super-expensive, questionably-effective technology that only the rich and desperate can afford.

Here's the story: in a new trend among rich white people, parents who have grown weary of waiting around for their single daughters in their 30's to produce grandchildren decide to pay $8,000-18,000 for their daughters' saggy old eggs to be harvested and frozen.

Says mother Gloria Hayes of Darien, CT (who appears in the photo above, which is so perfect it's like a cliché of a cliché):

"I just didn't feel right approaching her about it, because it's almost a criticism in a way -- 'You're getting old,' " Mrs. Hayes said. When Jennifer finally floated the idea, "I was thrilled. I thought this could just take a lot of the stress off her."


When Brigitte Adams, a San Francisco marketing consultant, brought up the idea of freezing her eggs to her parents, her father quickly approved. So quickly that, for a moment, Ms. Adams felt stung. "It was a little degree of shock," she said. "This is actually real if they're pushing me towards this," she recalled thinking at the time.

The really wonderful/horrible thing about this article is that these parents have found a way to both emphasize their children's advancing age and waning fertility, and infantilize them at the same time!

One more thing: in a coincidence that seems strange at first, but upon reflection is almost too perfectly on-the-nose, two of the young women featured in the article now write for blogs about their personal egg-freezing experiences. and I know.

* There's also USA Today, but I don't think anyone reads it unless it's dropped in front of their hotel room door.

May 8, 2012

Dark Shadows and 70's horror camp

Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp

Dark Shadows, the TV show, was a daily afternoon soap that premiered in 1966 just as The Munsters and The Addams Family were ending. This period was clearly the heyday of pulpy goth television, and the lovably creepy families from all three shows have lived on through multiple reincarnations, which I sort of doubt we're going to see with, say, The Vampire Diaries 40 years from now.

I went to see Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie, which is a nostalgic tribute to a TV show that Burton and Johnny Depp obviously loved when they were growing up. But the sad reality of Tim Burton these days is that he doesn't make very good movies anymore (possible exception: Sweeney Todd), and this one is an incoherent mess.

The style is cool (it's set in 1972,) and the gothier he goes with the story, characters, and design, the better. Tim Burton is great when he's dark. But several characters and entire plotlines felt tacked on and arbitrary, like the only reason he included them in the movie was that they were in the TV show. It doesn't hang together as a cohesive movie and probably would have been better if he'd made an episodic TV show, or series of vignettes about flamboyant Victorian vampire Johnny Depp, his creepy and possibly supernatural modern-day family, and Eva Green's cleavage.

The best thing about this movie is that it prompted revisiting of the half-hour daily TV show, which ran from 1966-71 for an astounding 1,225 episodes and was one of the most popular daytime soaps during its run. The Times has a wonderful article about it (the most repeated word in the piece is "weird".) It turns out that the show's creator, Dan Curtis, didn't set out to make a supernatural soap, he just started throwing in ghosts and vampires to chase ratings, much like today's soaps keep audiences guessing with evil twins, amnesia, or resurrections from the dead. Barnabas Collins, the Johnny Depp character, didn't even show up until 200 episodes in! Here's an excerpt from the Times:

In the context of late-'60s daytime drama these choices were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. A few years later we would learn to call such desperate moves "jumping the shark," but what Dark Shadows proved at the moment Barnabas's cold, pale hand reached out of his coffin was that soap-opera narrative is in its essence an act of desperation, like the telling of bedtime stories by weary parents to wakeful kids: the stories just seem to go on and on and on, and the longer your audience stays with you, the more sharks, inevitably, will have to be jumped.

The show eventually included "a staggering number of witches, warlocks, doppelgängers, mad scientists, werewolves, and, of course, ghosts," which Tim Burton tried to recreate by introducing a seemingly random slate of supernatural characters at odd moments in the movie. It feels like an arbitrary, disjointed mess, but even if the movie doesn't work, I can appreciate the homage to what sounds like a delightfully bizarre show.

Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows

A box set of the entire 5 season run of Dark Shadows is being released on DVD in July, packaged in an adorable coffin, for $420. A staggering 131 discs! That's a lot of vamping. You can also watch 160 episodes on Netflix streaming and catch some of the show's alleged line flubs and crew members visible on screen.

Here's a clip from the TV show from the episode when the Barnabas character is introduced. It's not as hammy as it could have been, but there's some excellent suspense in delaying the first time we see the face of Jonathan Frid.

April 2, 2012

Cindy Sherman at MoMA

Cindy Sherman photo

I went to see the huge Cindy Sherman exhibit at MoMA, which I think includes pretty much everything she ever did in the style she's famous for: Cindy Sherman dressed up as a character of her own invention, photographed by Cindy Sherman. People often write things about her photographs that include phrases like "the construction of identity", "nature of representation", and "artifice of photography" (those are all in the first sentence of the MoMA wall text at the exhibit. I might have even dropped something about "gender performance" or something obnoxious ripped off from Judith Butler in the conversation I had after leaving the museum.

But the truth is, no one can express that thing about humanity and the peculiar, funny, sad, insane ways we present ourselves to the world as well as Cindy Sherman can. That's why we're all are so crazy about her and her photos.

Cindy Sherman photo

Also. Note to self after seeing this exhibit: Do everything in your power to prevent people from looking at you and thinking, "That lady looks like a Cindy Sherman photograph." If I can pull that off, everything else in life should be OK.

Cindy Sherman photo

March 7, 2012

Amy's Robot turns 10, suffers midlife crisis

10 years old

Well, it's been 10 years of watching TV, going to the movies, following fluffy political gossip and serious celebrity news, and guessing which famous person is older. Hooray!

It's hard to imagine that 10 years ago, the world wasn't yet flooded with countless websites about pop culture and celebrities and the crazy world we live in. But now it is, and here we still are, doing exactly the same thing as back then. That's the power of brand consistency.

Looking back, I'm not coming up with much in the way of "accomplishments", so instead, let's consider some of the pitfalls other blogs have succumbed to that Amy's Robot has heroically avoided. None of us have lost our jobs due to unscrupulous posts about our bosses. We've technically never lost an advertiser. No Washingtonienne-style sex scandals (still trying!) or embarrassing failed book deals. No Homeland Security investigations (we love America, please don't arrest us) or attacks by Anonymous. I'll take lack of catastrophe as a substitute for actual achievement.

So thanks, everyone, for reading. A tip of my hat to That Fuzzy Bastard, Tim, T-Rock, ooghe, ORStylee, Colin, essbeekay, and Matt S for your many smart and funny comments. Emily and Cushie for years of collaboration, and special acknowledgement to ADM for co-surrogate-birthing this weird little baby.

Now to figure out what to do for the next 10 years, besides my eternal dream of making Who's Fatter?™ into a regular feature.

February 17, 2012

More from the Linky

Jeremy Lin Hey Girl

The Robot Linky over there on the right of the screen is still having technical problems (how 'bout supporting an RSS feed for Plus, huh, Google?) so here are a few things from the past few days:

  • Inevitable: Jeremy Lin Hey Girl Tumblr.
  • A good piece about the ongoing battle between Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (an old family friend of mine) and her church. Spahr was the first out lesbian minister leading a congregation and has been marrying same-sex couples within the church for years. She's an inspiring crusader for gay rights in a religious context, and has always spoken about marrying same-sex couples within the church as her spiritual calling, which pretty much means the Presbyterian church is arguing that God is wrong.
  • Nicolas Cage has been talking for years about his innovative acting technique he calls "nouveau-shamanic" and the rest of us would probably call "mental", but now he's comparing his inexplicable career choices to Led Zeppelin, which I hope means he's going to play a Norse hermit blues guitarist wizard soon.
  • Ken Jennings' response to yesterday's "aspirin between the knees" attempt at folksy contraception humor by Foster Friess that became an instant self-parody:

    I call b.s., BOTH my kids have been conceived with an aspirin between my knees. (Long story, pharmacy-themed roleplay.)

[tx, Cushie!]

January 18, 2012

Teens, old married couples, and sharing passwords

Happy password-sharing teenage girl

There's a front-page story in today's Times about teenagers who demonstrate their love for each other by sharing their email and Facebook passwords, such as the smiling Alexandra Radford, above. Alexandra and her high school boyfriend changed their email passwords to "ILoveKevin" and "ILoveAly" while they were dating, but she admits, “We did it so I could check his messages because I didn't trust him, which is not healthy.” No kidding.

The readers' comments offer a lot of predictable finger-wagging about how naive and silly it is to give your 17 year-old boyfriend free access to your email and the difficulty kids these days seem to have grasping any sense of privacy or boundaries. One comment points out the clever way a young person might share their passwords with their friends and still maintain privacy: have multiple email accounts.

This sensible advice reminded me of my parents, and their one email account which they share. I suspect I'm not alone in this. Even though they could create as many free email accounts as they want, and though they regularly use their shared account to communicate secret birthday present ideas for each other and things that the other one isn't supposed to read, my parents seem to feel that having one shared email address is like having one bank account--it's just what you do when you're married. My brother gently pointed out during a weirdly pretend-private email conversation about Christmas present planning: having separate email accounts doesn't mean you love each other any less.

The high school kids in the Times article are essentially demonstrating the same boundary-free devotion to each other as a couple that's been married for 43 years, which suggests a worrisome misjudgement of the stability and trustworthiness of teenage relationships. But it's interesting to me that no one I know in my generation would share their main email account with a boyfriend, or give their girlfriend their email password. Optimistically, that might be because we might find more meaningful ways to express closeness and trust, or more cynically, maybe we're jaded enough to know password sharing is a guaranteed relationship catastrophe.

Teenagers and our parents: sharing the struggle to understand how email works.

January 5, 2012

Myanmar gets its own manufactured girl group

Me N Ma Girls and The Runaways

If one requirement of a country's membership in modern, industrial society is its construction of a pop group whose youthful members were recruited and assembled by a group of producers and financiers, then welcome to the club, Myanmar! Cherie Currie and Baby Spice will show you around.

The Times has a feature on synthetic pop girl-group Me N Ma Girls (get it?), made up of five young women who were identified through a series of ads looking for girls with "energy and magnetic attraction," according to their manager Nicole May, an Australian dancer and graphic designer.

They seem to be the country's very first girl group, and though they haven't had real financial success yet, they have big dreams:

"I want this band to be famous and globally recognized. I want this band to hit Hollywood!" said Su Pyae Mhu Eain, a band member who studied zoology, specifically fish and shrimp, for her bachelor's degree. Her stage name is Cha Cha.

Cha Cha isn't the only member of Me N Ma Girls with an education to fall back on in case Hollywood doesn't work out. All five members have gone to college, with degrees in chemistry, math, Russian, and computer science. They might have easier post-pop careers than The Runaways (above), who were recruited by manager Kim Fowley before they'd had a chance to graduate from high school (and were, incidentally, huge in Asia.)

You can listen to their songs on Soundcloud, which are blandly produced, but offer the chance to hear young women rapping in Burmese, something you don't hear everyday. Like a lot of pop groups from non-Anglophone countries, they also sing in English, including lines from one of their catchiest songs, "Festival": "Hey you! Are you happy? You want some?" Here's the video, featuring the girls ecstatically partying down at an outdoor festival and lounging around a swimming pool while wearing the kind of long, demure sundresses that I think you'd only see in a girl-group video produced within an oppressive military regime.

October 26, 2011

DC High Heel Drag Queen Race

DC High Heel Drag Queen Race 2011

Last night was the first time I got to attend DC's annual High Heel Drag Queen Race, which happens the Tuesday before Halloween. It might be the only truly unusual experience I've ever had in Washington, a town I associate with smart, conservatively-dressed people who walk around the city wearing their building photo ID badges and, despite their dedication to arriving at their desks on time, wouldn't dream of crossing the street against the light (it's illegal!)

Twenty minutes after the race was over, cops were out in full force, notifying everyone that the fun was over, the brief window in which men are allowed to wear eyeliner and sequins was now closed, please put on some pants. Stern officers on motorcycles rode along the edge of the street, hustling some dawdling Divine-inspired ladies out of the gutter.

But there were loads of spectacular drag queens and thousands of people there to watch, so even if the party was short, it was a good time. The race served as a little preview of what I expect to see at New York's own Village Halloween Parade on Monday. Each year's crop of costumes seems to follow trends, and it's amazing how the same inspiration strikes so many parade-goers every year.

Here's what we can expect to see this year:

October 10, 2011

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you

Take Shelter

Remember two years ago when Up In the Air came out, and people said it was the perfect movie for our times because it was about layoffs? How simple life was back in 2009. Here in 2011, Take Shelter is the perfect movie for our times, because it takes every paranoid thought you've ever had about our unhealthy, unfair, and dangerous world and how it's going to ruin your life and/or kill you, then shows that those thoughts are 100% correct.

Michael Shannon plays a regular Midwestern family man who slowly becomes consumed by paranoid delusions about violent storms, attack dogs, shadowy evil figures and other nightmarish stuff. His delusions create all kinds of problems for his confused family and co-workers who pretty much think he's nuts. He figures he must be nuts, too: his mother is schizophrenic, and he assumes he must be going down the same path.

Except here's what makes this movie so great, and so important to watch if you've ever felt overwhelmed by the terrifying realities of our world and tried to convince yourself that you're just over-reacting. YOU'RE NOT. Look around! If you watch the news, you know the terror is real. Masses of birds really do fall dead from the sky. Tornadoes destroy towns and kill hundreds of innocent people. Tsunamis and earthquakes level cities. Unethical banks have ruined our economy. It's enough to make a sane person become unglued. If this world doesn't sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy, you're probably not paying attention.

Take Shelter might be the greatest vindication for rational paranoia I've ever seen. It's like if Signs and Don DeLillo's "White Noise" both represented logical responses to everyday life. Michael Shannon has made a career out of playing unhinged people, from a wild-eyed, contamination-obsessed maniac in Bug to the truth-speaking institutionalized neighbor in Revolution Road. No one's better at making insanity look both agonizing and like a perfectly reasonable response to being alive. Ebert describes him as "an actor of uncommon force." This guy's gonna to win himself an Oscar some day soon.

October 4, 2011

"Prohibiton" and the Carrie Nations

The Carrie Nations

Are you watching the new Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition"? So far I've seen the first episode, and it's really great. As with all his stuff, the images and film clips he's collected are truly amazing: he's gathered loads of video of ecstatic partiers in the 1920's cavorting in jazz clubs and guzzling bottles of gin and looking like they're having more fun than you've ever experienced in your life, which he intercuts with shots of stern crusaders hacking apart barrels of liquor with axes and gloating as all that devil's brew gushes into the streets. You can watch the full episodes online.

Even though it's titled "Prohibition", he looks at a broad history of alcohol in early America, when we were a nation of immigrants unified by our love of drinking. The Temperance movement was pretty much synonymous with feminism in the 19th century, and there are some great photos of hordes of women kneeling in prayer in their voluminous skirts outside of saloons and marching through city streets to protest the sale of liquor at a time when marching wasn't something women generally did.

But the best story of all was about the violent firebrand anti-alcohol hellraiser, Carrie Nation. She was such a compelling figure at the center of a bizarre episode in our country's history that Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer were inspired to name their busty, gutsy, all-girl rock band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Carrie Nations, after her. You can see some truly wonderful stills from the movie and revel in a moment in American cinema when a lurid piece of surrealist sexploitation trash would reference early feminist crusaders. Ah, the 70's.

Ken Burns, sadly, makes no mention of the Russ Meyer film in his documentary. The real-life Ms. Nation had a rough life plagued by alcoholic men, and lived in Kansas, where liquor sales were illegal but bars still flourished. In her 50's, she decided to take justice into her own hands, and with God's alleged support, started going from town to town, attacking saloons with rocks.

From her Wikipedia entry:

Announcing "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate," she began to destroy the saloon's stock with her cache of rocks. After she similarly destroyed two other saloons in Kiowa, a tornado hit eastern Kansas, which she took as divine approval of her actions.

After she led a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you." Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women she would march into a bar, and sing and pray while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.

My favorite Carrie Nation quote from the doc: "I tell you ladies, you don't know how good it feels till you begin to smash, smash, smash!"

Sure, she was probably mentally ill, and claiming you're doing God's work by throwing rocks at bartenders is never OK, but I can't help but love her and her take-no-prisoners style.

Maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters could take some inspiration from Ms. Nation and start carrying hatchets and Bibles and using her slogan, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls," to greet bankers heading to work.

September 28, 2011

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

I've been watching and reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for just about as long as I've been able to watch and read, so seeing him at the NY Times last night was one of the most exciting movie-related experiences I could have. A big reason I'm so into movies is that when I was growing up, I watched Siskel & Ebert talk about movies every week on TV. Because those two smart, thoughtful, funny guys were excited about movies, they got me excited about them, too. I don't always agree with Ebert, but he still writes about movies more compellingly than just about anyone, and I'm always interested in what he has to say.

Since Ebert got cancer and lost the ability to talk about 5 years ago, he stopped appearing on TV, but he's become unbelievably prolific in his writing. He reviews a bunch of movies every week (A.O. Scott, who interviewed him last night, said Ebert reviews at least twice as many movies each week than any one else he knows), writes a blog, an excellent Twitter feed (500,000 followers!), plus he has a new memoir out and, my personal favorite, a cookbook for rice cookers. He'll probably never speak again, but the man still has a lot to say.

A couple of things about the interview, which Ebert conducted by typing into a talking laptop:

  • He got into movie reviewing entirely by accident. The former movie critic at the Sun-Times retired, and Ebert got assigned to take over because, he claims, he was the youngest journalist and had the longest hair.
  • A.O. Scott talked about 3D and Ebert's well-publicized, unwavering contempt for it, and said that Ebert was on the record saying he thought 3D was a "disaster". Ebert immediately corrected him, via talking computer. "Abomination," he said. Preach it, Roger!
  • He told a story about the legendarily tough critic Gene Siskel about a time Siskel took his young daughters to see a movie. When they were leaving the theater, he asked his younger daughter what she thought of it. "Daddy," she said, "I didn't like it." "I've never been more proud!," he told Roger.
  • A.O. Scott asked Ebert for a few of those movies, among the hundreds of thousands he's watched, that are most special and meaningful to him. He named four, which I thought were surprisingly arty and relatively obscure, considering he's probably the best known mainstream movie critic ever:

    Ikiru, by Kurosawa. I think I watched this for a class on Japanese film when I was 20 years old, and almost definitely fell asleep. Ebert says it's a wise film about mortality and death, topics that probably don't resonate with a junior in college who still thinks Goldschlager is a very nice drink in the same way they would with someone who's survived cancer.

    Floating Weeds, by Ozu. I haven't seen it. Actually, I still haven't seen any of Ozu's movies, probably because I've heard they're lengthy, quiet studies of Japanese family life, and I always end up picking something less lengthy and quiet instead.

    2001: A Space Odyssey, by Kubrick, which Ebert said "knocked his socks off". Maybe sometime he could explain to me what happens in the last 20 minutes.

    Gates of Heaven, by Errol Morris. This is the one about pet cemeteries, definitely one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. As A.O. Scott pointed out, it's impossible to tell if Morris has compassion and respect for the people in the doc who select these cemeteries as the final resting places for their beloved pets, or if he thinks they're a bunch of lunatics that make good punchlines. Maybe both?

One other thing about Siskel & Ebert and their lasting legacy. I was out at karaoke last week, and someone performed Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch", a song that's very popular at karaoke despite it being almost impossible to get through. When the line "Yes I'm Siskel, yes I'm Ebert, and you're getting two thumbs up" line came along, the lyrics displayed on the screen read: "Yes I'm Sisco, yes I'm Evil, and you're getting two thumbs up." An unintentionally surrealist lyrical reworking, there.

Whoever transcribed that line perhaps doesn't speak English as their first language, but still, it made me wonder if young people don't actually know what "Siskel & Ebert" means anymore.

Many old "Siskel & Ebert" reviews are archived, so you can watch them argue about, for example, The Big Lebowski. It's still fun to watch the two of them.

September 14, 2011

Drive and the 80's

Drive movie poster

I went to see the new arty action movie Drive last night, which I think is this year's 28th movie starring Ryan Gosling. I liked it for its unabashedly stylized approach to action movie standards like car chases and people getting shot in the head, and especially for all the 80's design. As much as I liked this stuff, I don't understand it at all.

Take a look at that movie poster, with the inexplicable anachronistic hot pink cursive font. What's that about? Some people have drawn comparisons to classic 80's movie posters, like the one for Heathers, but I see some other inspirations. Like this:

Risky Business poster

And a little bit of this:

Purple Rain

And let's not forget:

Tiffany album cover

The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, stopped by for a little Q&A after the movie, and he came right out and said he ripped off the Risky Business poster. He explained that, as a Danish director coming to America, he found LA to be a city stylistically trapped in the 80's. I'm not sure I totally get what he means, but I'll admit there do seem to be an awful lot of restaurants that incorporate glass bricks and walls unironically painted turquoise out there.

Then there's the music. The soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez, Steven Soderbergh's main man) is hyper-self-conscious 80's pop synth. The theme songs sound a lot like OMD's "Souvenir" or Q Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses", which is featured in both Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs.

What all this 80's stuff is doing in a contemporary action movie is beyond me, especially one with scene after scene of gruesome, brutal violence that seems to explode out of nowhere. The killings in this movie are so graphic and violent that audience members started laughing in disbelief.

Then there's the acting. It's the opposite of the horrific violence and the synth soundtrack. It's terse. Minimal. Dialogue is sparse, stylized, and often sort of weird. Ryan Gosling is, as one reviewer says, a closed book. But, wait, then there's also Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, playing smaller roles with funny, snappy dialogue, plenty of warmth, and a dollop of sinister fiendishness.

The director explained that he used the lush, warm, synthy music to balance out the harsh violence and the (sometimes) cold acting style. But watching the movie, I wasn't sensing "balanced" so much as "mentally ill". The word that describes the feeling I got from the collective tones and styles of this movie is crazy. Specifically, either Nicolas Wearing Refn is crazy, or I am.

The poster font, the soundtrack, acting that's all over the place, Albert Brooks saying lines like "I used to make movies in the 80's. Action films, sexy stuff--one critic called them European." People getting stabbed in the eye with a fork. It's like if you took Michael Mann's Thief, Collateral, and the first season of "Miami Vice", then went nuts, then remade them into one crazy Scando-American movie. And it's good!

I was curious about Refn's next project, which will be a movie called Only God Forgives, also starring Ryan Gosling. Here's the description: "A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match."

So maybe it's not just me.

September 12, 2011

Contagion, social distancing, and lots of dead bodies

Jude Law's biohazard suit in Contagion

Watching the Contagion trailer, I thought this was the movie Steven Soderbergh was born to make. Is there a single genre or sub-genre he can't do? He's done a political crime thriller (Traffic) and a sexy crime thriller (Out of Sight) better than just about anyone, so it's time he got around to a virus thriller. Chilly scientists, dogged scaremongers, aversion to human contact, and total, panicky desperation--this is the stuff Soderbergh eats up. Plus, Elliott Gould! I was all over this one.

The rest of the country was ready for a big deadly disease movie, too--Contagion was easily the #1 movie this week. I'm not sure exactly what our country has learned over the last decade, but the 10th anniversary of 9/11 seems like a good time to indulge in some old-fashioned social paranoia.

The movie is a terrifically good time, tense and fast-paced and almost relentlessly pessimistic. It reminded me of that incredible moment in Traffic when a well-dressed, very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones says "Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" into a cellphone. One reason it's so good is that it never stops long enough for you to think about why the disease is happening or what it means, or if it represents some ethical or political message. It doesn't. It's just a great big disaster movie with some of the planet's most famous and beautiful people getting sick and dying horribly right in front of our eyes, and it's a blast. As Soderbergh once said about his style, "It's harder to be pretentious when you're moving really fast."

My favorite part of disaster movies like this is the moment when things go from bad to total catastrophe, social order breaks down, and all the rules we normally live by go out the window. Soderbergh has a scene outside an ill-fated FEMA truck that could be a case study in a seminar on Breakdown of Social Order in Disaster Movies. He's got a few scenes of every-man-for-himself mayhem that, along with sequences of people unwittingly handling contaminated touchscreens, water glasses, and cellphones, make you realize how screwed we would be if an epidemic like this ever happened. We're so sloppy about germs and cleanliness we might as well be rubbing each other's snot all over our faces.

The cast is great. Soderbergh gets excellent, understated performances out of Matt Damon, and he's great in this as a bereaved man who's going through emotional hell, but keeps his head down and holds it together to keep his daughter healthy. You know who else is really good? Gwyneth Paltrow! She's surprisingly believable as an average married Midwestern corporate manager who maybe likes to have a little too much fun on business trips. I haven't seen a lot of Jude Law lately, but I loved his morally ambiguous, possibly deranged, self-promoting blogger/prophet with his homemade biohazard suit (above).

As in every Soderbergh movie, the music is fantastic, with his usual collaborator and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez keeping things moving with a cool, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack.

Thanks to Matt Damon (who Soderbergh said is "as discreet as a 14 year-old girl") we know that Soderbergh isn't retiring right away. He's still got Haywire (the one with the mixed martial arts champ and former American Gladiator Gina Carano), Magic Mike (the one about male strippers with Channing Tatum and (yes!) Matthew McConaughey), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake, and Liberace (with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend.) But I guess the planned 3D rock-opera about Cleopatra with music by Guided By Voices, Cleo, was too crazy be true.

August 26, 2011

Be prepared!

Hurricane Irene path

As the east coast prepares to get pounded by Hurricane Irene, I bet a lot of us in the Northeast are finding ourselves in the strange position of wondering what exactly we're supposed to do to prepare. Sure, we know how to drive in snow and that the best way to cope with a 100+ degree day is to go the movies, but we're not used to hurricanes. What if we actually get hit by hurricane-level wind and rain and really bad things start to happen?

It wasn't until this morning that I thought about the possibility of an evacuation of some parts of the city and greater region. I stood in the shower, listening to Bloomberg talk about possible evacuations on the radio, and realized that everywhere I thought of as a safe place to go in case of a bad storm was actually just further along the storm's likely path. Hmm. Where exactly would I go? Scranton?

I had an unsettling mental image of myself innocently wandering into Port Authority with a backpack and some vague notion of hopping on a Greyhound bus headed anywhere west, and being swept up in a chaotic horde of thousands of pissed off New Yorkers who don't have cars and all decided at around 6:30 on Saturday that the Lower East Side and Red Hook aren't the greatest places to be in a city where the streets flood on regular rainy days, fighting over standing space in the aisle of a Coach USA bus to Binghamton that's filled with screaming children and has an overflowing toilet in the back.

It's probably not going to happen that way. My guess is, it'll rain like hell and be windy and wild, the subways will flood and shut down, and maybe, worst case scenario, we'll lose power for a day or two.

So I'm preparing by ensuring I have plenty of the following things: clean underwear and cash. And some beer in the fridge.

In a piece on NPR this morning about how the big box stores are stocking up on essential items, I heard that the rest of America has a similarly cavalier attitude to their post-storm preparations. What's the single item that most people rush to Walmart to buy for a major storm? Batteries? Drinking water? Generators? Nope. Strawberry Pop-Tarts. That's true American grit.

Nate Silver calculates that, even if a Category 1 storm hits land 50 miles from Manhattan, the damage will be in the multi-billions of dollars, and if it's a direct hit, tens of billions. A weak Category 2 storm hitting Manhattan would cause damage worth half of the city's annual budget.

Gothamist has a map of the city's evacuation zones (the link to the city's map is reeeally slow today.) Don't go to the beach, and stay safe, everyone.

August 18, 2011

"The Hour" on BBC America

The Hour on BBC America

Broadcast News

The first episode of a new BBC series "The Hour" was on last night. It's pretty great! Watching something good on TV again was so gratifying that I didn't realize until now how long it's been since I got excited about a new show.

Every single review I've seen for this show has gone out of its way to stress how "The Hour" is nothing like "Mad Men", though both are set in the workplace in an era when people dressed sharply while behaving terribly, and drank whiskey and smoked, both have ambitious, compelling female characters who want more than their chosen industries are comfortable with giving them, and both are located in a mid-century period when the world is about to change forever.

But "The Hour" is about TV news. As far as I'm concerned, News > Ads, so there's pretty much no way I wouldn't be into this show.

But, OK. It's not really like "Mad Men". The mid-50's London setting is a lot darker and dingier than the bright, shiny offices of early-60's Sterling Cooper. The news rooms are small and cramped, and oppressive class distinctions are positioned front and center. Life in post-war London probably didn't feel sleek, modern, and hopeful, it probably felt stifling and hard. Rationing was in place until 1954, and the empire was disappearing.

I love this stuff, so I'm all over this show. The actors in "The Hour" are fantastic--Ben Wishaw as the scrappy, talented journalist with an investigative instinct, Romola Garai as the hot, brassy, but insecure producer (have you see this woman in other stuff? She's phenomenal) and Dominic West as the slick, charming news presenter who seems to get his way a little too easily, and is even better looking than Don Draper.

This triangle is literally exactly the same as the one in Broadcast News, the movie with Albert Brooks as the talented journalist who lacks social graces, Holly Hunter as the fiesty producer, and William Hurt as the style-over-substance ladies' man news presenter. Broadcast News is just about a perfect movie, so I have no problem with lifting the characters straight out of it and plopping them in the early days of BBC TV news.

Let's watch one of the great scenes from Broadcast News that will probably be more or less recreated in some dark, ugly bar or basement news room sometime in the next few weeks:

Even with the food rationing and all those cigarettes, everyone in "The Hour" is a whole lot handsomer than anyone was in Broadcast News. Really, how did we ever see William Hurt as a sex symbol?

The scrappy Albert Brooks-like investigative journalist basically serves as the Don Draper of the show, and watching him speak passionately about news in one great scene where he predicts the next day's headlines (accurately, we later see) is as good as Don Draper's best sentimental pitch.

In later episodes, we'll learn more about the ghoulish Peter Lorre-like figure who keeps murdering prominent people for some shadowy political reason, and watch Dominic West dashingly seduce everything in a skirt.

August 15, 2011

Why I don't go to the Bryant Park film series anymore

Bryant Park, Monday night film series

Back in the summer of 2001, I used to go to the Monday night Bryant Park film series every single week. I'd go by myself most weeks, rushing home from work to wolf down a quick dinner and run over to the park. Even though a lot of other people had arrived much, much earlier to stake out their spots (there were a lot of unemployed people in 2001) as long as I got there by about 6:20, I could get a decent, smallish space for myself, and relax for a while before the movie started. At that time, it was one of the few good free outdoor film series, and I saw some really great classic movies: Viva Las Vegas, The Wild One, You Can't Take it With You, The Philadelphia Story, Stalag 17.

As tough as it was in 2001 to snag a good spot if you had an office job, it got worse every year. More people started showing up each week, everyone started having cell phones and talking on them during the movie, and, like everyone who's lived in a city for a long time and found themselves inevitably sliding toward the crinkly end of the demographic spectrum, I got more and more irritated at all the 22 year-olds who loudly dominated on Monday nights in the park. I went less and less often, and now it's been a few years since I even thought about going.

Which I've just learned is a good thing. A recent Times article about this summer's series begins with a regular Bryant Park attendee who shows up each week at 5:00 PM with an entire suitcase that allegedly contains two dozen sheets, which he uses to countermand an absurdly gigantic swath of real estate for himself and his friends. "We make sure all of the sheets overlap so that no one can seize a patch of grass," he says.

Sure, he gets there early and has to wait in the park for hours before the movie starts, but this kind of land grab at a free public event sounds suspiciously like the behavior of a greedy asshole to me. Or, OK, I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he and his many friends just really love classic movies under the stars.

Then at the end of the article, the writer notes that not everyone at the park appears to be there to watch the movie: "Some checked their phones nonstop. Others fell asleep. A few ducked out early." Then there's a quote from the Bryant Park Conquistador himself: " 'It's not about the movie. It's about having a picnic in the park.' "

What?! Dude. If it's really about having a picnic in the park, couldn't you maybe pick any other park in New York City for your picnic? Or come to Bryant Park for your ridiculously expansive picnic on a Wednesday night? It's because of people like this guy that I'll be missing Dirty Harry next week.

Uh oh. I think I sounded like Glenn Beck for a second, there.

August 8, 2011

Another bum TUSH year

Katy Perry and Adele

It's that time again. I've been on the road for weeks, traveling the country on a mission of cultural exploration, listening to passing car stereos and piped music in convenience stores across the land, trying to identify the Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit of 2011!

This hasn't been much of a fun conversation for the last couple of years. In 2010, I lamely tried to deny the undeniable "California Gurls" juggernaut, because I can't stand Katy Perry and it's a terrible song without even a glimmer of anything real or funky or good. It's light and catchy, but not particularly fun.

Instead, I claimed that last year's TUSH was Cee-Lo's wonderful "Fuck You", which came out in late August and had every single quality that makes a TUSH a TUSH, except the part about being ubiquitous. But! That came later. By last fall, "Fuck You" was unavoidably overplayed, thanks to "Glee" and Gwyneth. I called it! (Three months early.)

The year before, the TUSH was the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling". I'm pretty sure I was right about that one, because I still hear this song all the time. I'm not happy about this.

This year, we've got a couple of non-compelling options: Katy Perry (again) with "Last Friday Night" from that same damn album of hers that came out an entire f'ing year ago (and is probably going to break Michael Jackson's record of generating five #1 singles. Barf.)

It's a song about partying, so at least it's in the TUSH ballpark, but, like last year's hit, it's irritating as hell. I hear it far too often. Shouldn't we be at least a little bit happy every time we hear the current TUSH? She's releasing a remix with Missy Elliott, which lends "Last Friday Night" some TUSH cred, since Missy's own "Get Ur Freak On" was the 2001 TUSH.

The other big contender is Adele's gigantic hit "Rolling in the Deep". This one has the ubiquity part cold. I heard it at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, I heard it at a family picnic when my teenage cousins' cover band started their backyard set with it. It's everywhere. Friends tell me just about everyone they know likes it, no matter what their usual preferences are.

So maybe it's just me, because I'm not wild about it. It's a downer, which makes it a clumsy fit for a TUSH. It also came out in November of last year, though didn't hit #1 on the charts until late May, where it stayed for 7 weeks.

A few things about Adele that bug me: she owes a lot of her success to Amy Winehouse, who tragically failed to overcome her addictions, but was a far superior artist. Adele may not like the comparison, and it's possible that she wasn't directly influenced by Amy Winehouse, but her career probably wouldn't exist if "Back to Black" hadn't sold millions of copies.

And did you hear her rich-person rant about having to pay taxes earlier this summer? Awful.

There's also this song, "Party Rock Anthem", by uncle-nephew duo LMFAO which is currently at #1 in sales and radio play. Have you heard it? It's like six months old and intended to be a joke, I'm pretty sure. At this point, I don't care, it's ridiculous and fun, so if I start hearing it at Duane Reade or the Korean noodle lunch place on 48th St, it'll be a perfectly serviceable TUSH.

We've certainly got some ubiquitous songs this summer, but there's a certain laziness in identifying the season with songs that have been kicking around since last year. If I'm missing some great, sunshiny tune out there, please let me know!

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 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 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.

January 5, 2011

America still loves Westerns

Coens at True Grit premiere

One last thing about True Grit then I'll shut up about it. It turns out that it's kind of a big hit: it's still #2 at the box office after being out for 2 weeks, and it looks like it's going to make more money than The Social Network, which had previously been this year's big indie-ish hit.

It's also the biggest hit yet for the Coen brothers, already doing better than their previous top-selling movie No Country For Old Men, and that one, arguably also a Western, won Best Picture. We might not necessarily think of the Coens as guys who make Westerns, but judging by the movies that the most people want to see, apparently they are. Another universally loved movie of theirs, at least on video, is Raising Arizona, which has a lot of classic Western elements too (desert setting, highway showdown, bank robbery, warthog from hell, etc.)

The difference with True Grit is how straight they tell the story: it's not ironic at all, and the characters all speak in that wonderful formal, heightened language with no winking. It's an uncomplicated, funny Western. Asked why this one has done so well with mainstream audiences after 15 movies, Ethan Coen suggested, "We just outwaited everybody."

The Academy has been pretty obvious in its recent attempts to make the Oscars more accessible and popular to mainstream audiences, so the surprise success of True Grit just about guarantees that it's going to pop up on nominations lists, sort of like a more deserving The Blind Side.

Ever stalwart!

November 21, 2010

The new Girl Talk album

All Day album cover

I've been trying to write this for several days, and might finally have figured out how to articulate a couple of unorganized, loosely-related things:

  • In a lot of ways, this album is more of the same. If you've heard the last two albums ("Feed the Animals", "Night Ripper") you pretty much know what to expect from this one. This isn't to suggest that it's dull or uninteresting: I had a huge smile on my face listening to this for the first time, starting at 0:05.
  • Starting this album with "War Pigs" is so incredibly wonderful and is exactly the kind of thing that makes me love listening to Girl Talk albums. It's also what makes me unable to listen to it without taking notes. This kind of album or music or art form, or whatever it is, is most rewarding if you know and love all different kinds of music. If you like Black Sabbath, New Order, Simon and Garfunkel, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Biggie, and "Tenderness" by the guy from English Beat, you're going to have a better time listening to this album than if you're into just one style of music.
  • Obviously, it's the experience of listening to this album and having moment after moment of delighted recognition that is the purpose of this kind of music, album, art form, whatever. The listener's experience is an integral part of all music, just like the viewer looking at a painting or watching a play is an integral part of those art forms.

    But with Girl Talk, without the listener hearing "Bust a Move" mixed with "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and laughing, this is just a bunch of snippets of other people's songs. What makes it art, or whatever you want to call it, is what happens in your brain when you listen to it, and that listener response is a more important part of what makes it good than it is for other kinds of music/art/whatever.

  • The experience of listening to pop music can actually be permanently changed by listening to Girl Talk albums. Since "Feed the Animals" came out two years ago, I've found myself hearing certain popular songs and thinking, "This is the kind of thing Girl Talk would use." I've heard that DJ's listen to music differently than the rest of us, constantly unconsciously looking for hooks, beats, or segments of two different songs that would go well together. I didn't even realize I had started listening to pop music in terms of Girl Talk using it on an album until I heard this one. Of course Lady Gaga is all over this album, and of course he used a big chunk of Rihanna's sassy "Rude Boy". I didn't even realize I was thinking like this until this album came out, and there these songs are.

I'm not sure if there are moments on this album that reach the transcendent heights of "Night Ripper"'s mix of "Tiny Dancer" and Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy", but there are a few contenders. I especially like "Sour Times" by Portishead with "Shutterbugg" by Big Boi, "Creep" by Radiohead with "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" by ODB, and "Lust for Life" with "Love Game" and "Hey Ladies".

My favorite moment so far is "Ante Up" by M.O.P., a song I've grown to love since seeing the totally genius Bert and Ernie rap video, mixed with Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA", which somehow captures the sincere, unifying, all-American patriotism of pop music.

You can see all the original tracks listed second-by-second on the album's Wikipedia page.

November 16, 2010

Silent movies, Woody Allen


Crimes and Misdemeanors

Turner Classic Movies is doing a fantastic 7-part series on the early days of Hollywood and the American movie business called "Moguls and Movie Stars". It's on every Monday at 8:00, and Part 3 was on last night; it was all about the 1920's, and included the rise of huge movie stars like Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo, and the incredibly huge wealth created by the studio heads.

In this week's installation, we see east coast investors and government agencies slowly becoming aware of that crazy bunch of hedonist reprobates out in LA, drinking illegal booze, having orgies, and making money hand over fist. Hollywood attracted the attention of investors like Joseph Kennedy, who poured money into the movie industry and created RKO, and also had an affair with Gloria Swanson (the Kennedy men loved their movie stars.) Before the federal government could regulate the increasingly salacious output, the industry stepped in and created the self-censoring Hays Office, so that was the end of on-screen nudity and unpunished adultery for the next few decades.

We also learned about the created of the Academy and the first Oscar awards. The first Best Picture awards were given to two movies, Wings and Sunrise, both silent films. TCM aired Sunrise right after the series--a really incredibly good movie. It's the first Hollywood movie by F.W. Murnau, maybe better known for doing Nosferatu with alleged pretend vampire Max Schreck.

The storyline of 1927's Sunrise has been used over and over again in more recent movies -- I can think of at least 6 Woody Allen movies that use its ideas. Crimes and Misdemeanors (above), Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and a bunch of others all involve a bored married man who goes crazy for a sexy single woman, then things go wrong and he eventually comes to his senses and goes back to his wife. He might even try to kill someone along the way. If Sunrise were remade today, the husband would maybe be Adam Sandler or Paul Schneider (big-budget/low-budget), the wife would be Emily Mortimer or Drew Barrymore (the actress in the original looks just like her), the hot young temptress would be Kirsten Dunst or Mila Kunis.

I never realized it before, but this story we've seen a hundred times is taken straight from our silent classics. Just like in Sunrise, Woody allows his guys to run around with their young girlfriends, then come back home to their comely wives with basically no consequences--with the notable exception of Anthony Hopkins in his latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, maybe the only time it doesn't work out for him.

The Hays Code put a temporary end to scenes in Sunrise like the young single girl lounging in her filmy underwear and rolling around in a swamp with the married dude -- it's always a little bit of a surprise to see the stuff audiences were watching in pre-Code 1920's movie theaters. There's a reason we went from zero theaters to 21,000 theaters by 1916. To put that in context, there are 5,800 theaters and 39,000 screens today, and 3 times more people in the country.

November 1, 2010

Hey, look, it's Sars!

Tough Love in Time Out

I was reading the current issue of Time Out, which has a new weekly feature called "Tough Love" which offers smart, non-sugar-coated dating advice. And hey! It's by our old almost-friend Sars, aka Sarah D. Bunting!

If you've been reading the internet for a while, you may remember a time before Gawker, before Jezebel, and before every single style and culture magazine started doing clever commentary of TV episodes. Today, if you want some analysis of the latest episode of "Mad Men" or "Glee", you can read the Times' TV blog, NY Mag, Entertainment Weekly, even the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and many other sites that do TV recaps.

But there was a time when Television Without Pity was pretty much the only game in town, and it was hugely influential. I was a big fan back when it was called Mighty Big TV, and Sars' weekly "Dawson's Creek" recaps regularly forced me to clap my hands over my mouth and shake silently at my desk so that no one in the office would know I was reading something deeply hilarious and not remotely work-related.

Though they couldn't have known the havoc they would wreak on a generation of internet commenters, TWoP brought the word "snark" into common usage and taught us all how to be ironic and sophisticated when writing about pop culture. Though, judging from all those other recap writers, not necessarily how to be funny.

Anyway, TWoP was sold to Bravo in 2007, and Sars and co-founder Wing Chun left the year after. Since the sale to Bravo I have read the current site's recaps exactly zero times. Their related pop culture site Fametracker has been frozen in time since 2007, and, sadly, doesn't look like it will ever return. Which is too bad--Fametracker was one of my favorite media/culture/celebrity sites ever.

Sarah D. Bunting's personal site Tomato Nation looks better than ever, with a lot of stuff about candy, baseball, and, of course, what she's watching on TV. She's also done an advice column for many years, so it's pretty cool that a magazine finally noticed and offered her a regular gig.

So far, Tough Love is good: funny, sharp, and sympathetic, while not letting anyone off the hook. In her very first answer, she advises a young woman fed up with waiting for her boyfriend to propose to "grab a Ring Pop and propose to him. It’s 2010." Thank you, Sars! This should be the default advice given to anyone who has ever made this complaint. Hope she's as influential with this kind of stuff.

October 25, 2010

Original zombie programming

The Dead Set on IFC

Now that every cable channel feels like it has to do original programming, a couple of channels are introducing new shows this week. Two of them are zombie shows, which is a little odd: didn't the Great Zombie Revivification peak 3 or 4 or 8 years ago? I think of the publication of World War Z, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, and the Halloween Parade of 2008 when about 10,000 people all seemed to be dressed as zombies as the high point of the new zombie revolution.

But it's only now that TV is catching up. AMC is going to premiere its new series, "The Walking Dead", on Halloween night (next Sunday). It sounds like a close relative of Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later, in which the main character wakes up in a hospital to find the world has been overrun by zombies. It's based on a comic series that launched in 2003, a good year for zombies. It looks like it should be pretty good, but might take itself too seriously (producer-director Frank Darabont wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption and, even better, Nightmare on Elm Street III.)

IFC has its own zombie show, too, "Dead Set". This one starts tonight at midnight and runs for just five episodes. It's a British series that first aired in 2008 (again, a better year for TV zombies) and features a bunch of young telegenic people shooting a season of "Big Brother" while the world outside the studio is transformed by the zombie apocalypse.

This one sounds pretty funny: the fans of the show screaming outside the Big Brother house slowly turn into zombies that try to eat their idols' brains. From the Times article about the series: "One of the 'Big Brother' hosts, Davina McCall, plays herself. She does so quite convincingly, as both a sharp-tongued television presenter and a blood-caked angry zombie trying to take a bite out of her producer."

First Shaun of the Dead and now this: Why is it that only the British have succeeded in the zombie spoof genre?

In the non-zombie original programming category is a new series on TCM, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood", a 7-part show starting next Monday night about the explosive growth of the American movie industry. It starts in 1903 with nickelodeons and The Great Train Robbery, and ends in 1969 with Easy Rider.

I think this is TCM's first original documentary, and it looks great, even if no one's guts get ripped out of their bellies and devoured by a horde of fast-moving undead.

September 7, 2010

Electric Zoo fashion

Electric Zoo 2010

[photo from NY Times]

On Saturday I went to the gigantic all-day two-day dance music festival on Randall's Island, Electric Zoo. I expected my posse to be among the oldest people there (except for the DJs and Jon Pareles I think we were) so I was curious to see what the club kids would be wearing these days. My knowledge of rave culture is pretty out of date, so I wondered how much had changed since the mid-90's.

Nothing. Nothing had changed. Aside from the people in t-shirts and shorts that would have been dressed exactly the same way in any recent decade, the club kids looked just like club kids circa 1994. I saw face glitter. Stuffed animal backpacks. Rainbow tights. Glow sticks. Pacifiers. Freaking whistles around their necks that they would un-ironically blow! It was the same radioactive cartoon character look that everyone was wearing almost 20 years ago.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, a lot of the music at the event was a clear throwback to the early 90's. If you went to the Rush concert at Jones Beach in July, I would bet you would have seen a lot of acid-washed jeans, feathered hair, and single earring studs on display in that crowd. (They did all of the "Moving Pictures" album and I bet it was fantastic.)

I'm not judging: this is just the reality of concerts and events that refer to a specific time and place in cultural history. The rave-y dance music scene peaked over 15 years ago, and it seems like the fashion is still stuck back there.

Some of the newer-looking outfit innovations that I noticed were lots of people in pink or green or orange neon shirts or accessories or tights, which is actually a throwback to the early 80's, fun fur leg warmers, and also these weird tutu-length crinoline things, which girls would wear over their pants or tights (see photo above). I don't know what that's about.

One other observation: I know we all need to record every moment of our lives for blogs and Facebook, but many people who weren't experiencing some sort of transporting chemical enhancement seemed to spend the really great sets fiddling with their camera settings or taking pictures or video of a DJ on a distant stage. The kids who weren't doing any documenting were pogoing up and down, waving their hands (or their glow sticks) all over the place, shaking their hair around, grabbing their friends in an ecstatic hug and generally losing their minds. There's some oddly Zen-like lesson on living in the moment in there.

August 31, 2010

FDA knows all about the cough syrup, kids

cough syrup

The FDA has noticed that kids everywhere are chugging cough syrup because they're making themselves sick: 8,000 kids ended up in the emergency room due to cough syrup abuse in 2008, which is up 70% from 2004. There's some talk of regulating the world's easiest drug for a high school kid to get, though making cough syrup prescription-only would be incredibly irritating during cold season. It might end up behind the counter, which would mean that you'd have to be 18 to buy it and would significantly compromise the offerings at many a drama club cast party.

In reading about kids drinking cough syrup, I found a wonderful Wikipedia entry, "Recreational use of dextromethorphan", the dissociative drug in many cough syrups, which is the last thing you should let any 16 year-old read if you're trying to prevent them from ladling this stuff onto their Cheerios.

A few excerpts from the various stages of intoxication one experiences on too much cough syrup:

* First plateau: effects include a sensation of alertness, stimulant effects such as restlessness, intensification of emotions, general euphoria, and euphoria linked to music.

* Second plateau: effects include entering a dreamlike state of consciousness, a heavier "stoned" feeling than with first plateau, and/or closed-eye hallucinations.

* Third plateau: effects include dreamlike vision, inability to comprehend language, abstract hallucinations, feelings of peace and quiet, and/or feelings of rebirth.

* Fourth plateau: an individual may experience a perceived loss of contact and control with their own body, out-of-body experiences, perceptions of contact with "superior," supernatural, or other archetypal beings (e.g. gods, aliens, vampires, etc.)

* Plateau Sigma: users have reported encounters with aliens and gods.

Maybe those last ones are only when you're on Ayahuasca-flavored Robitussen.

One clarification: the regular robo-tripping cough syrup that the FDA is concerned about is not the same as the stuff that southern rappers drink. That's drank. Sizzurp. Promethazine-codeine. Wikipedia has an extensive entry for that, too, with examples of about 35 different guys (and Nicki Minaj) who have referenced it in their songs. To be honest, prescription cough syrup doesn't sound nearly as crazy as the regular stuff, even if it can kill you: Wikipedia describes the high as "extreme somnolence" rather than vampire hallucinations.

No one seems to write songs about over-the-counter cough syrup, probably because its fans are mostly suburban 9th graders.

August 23, 2010

Cee-Lo's surprise TUSH

Cee-Lo Green

Just when I was about to give up and admit that 2010 would be a year without a suitable Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, along comes our old friend Cee-Lo Green, who blows away everything you've heard all summer in the first 15 seconds of his new single, "Fuck You".

This is the most sunshiny, ebullient song I've heard all summer, and since the world first heard it at the end of last week and over the weekend, it has become absolutely unavoidably everywhere. It's been remixed by 50 Cent. It's been written up by the Wall Street Journal ("vulgar but catchy").

It's also been reviewed on Pitchfork: "It's beyond happy. Cathartic. It could be the new Sesame Street theme. It could play at a wedding, and your grandmother would hobble to it. It's post-censorship." It really is.

That's it! Katy Perry, you're outta here! Eminem, go beat girls up someplace else! At least for today, Cee-Lo's got this year's TUSH. And you can't even buy it until October 4.

Gnarls Barkley (Cee-Lo + Danger Mouse) had the TUSH in 2006 with "Crazy", which grew to ubiquity over several months. While the world took many listens to get into the wistful musings of that song, as of your first listen, "Fuck You" is burned into your brain forever. It's so catchy it feels like you already know it.

By the way, radio is playing a clean version of the song ("Forget You"), which as Pitchfork says, "may as well not exist."

Here's Cee-Lo's Twitter, and here's his website where you can hear a few of the songs that will be on his new album, Lady Killer.

August 19, 2010

The male Brazilian: a country with no boundaries

40 Year Old Virgin waxing scene

Male waxing is nothing new. Over the last decade or so (or last century for gay guys) more and more men have gotten some various part of their chest, back, shoulders, or legs waxed, gaining a personal understanding of suffering for beauty, and perhaps a new way to bond with women.

The new frontier: Brazilians for men. Christopher Hitchens did it a few years ago, and today Salon has a first-person account, "Why I got the male Brazilian wax" by a brave fellow who sounds like he was bullied into it by his girlfriend's waxing technician, a brusque Russian named Irena.

Hetero male waxing of the nether regions isn't exactly new territory (Newsweek reported that "it's the straight guys who seem to be doing the more extreme waxing" back in 2004) but now that it's become as common as flossing, I started to think about it. Like, what a male Brazilian actually means. I understand it for the ladies. It means everything is gone.

For what about for men? For most women, hair in tender areas tends to stop at some point. If you're going to remove all of it, there is a somewhat clearly-defined area with boundaries that "all of it" lies within. But a lot of men out there have hair that just goes on and on like an endless follicular ocean. There's no hair horizon. If you're going in deep around the entire crotchal area, that's fine, but where do you stop? Clearly, balls are involved. I don't want to get too graphic, here, but I can imagine situations where once you start waxing down there, you wouldn't necessarily encounter a natural stopping point until you reached the soles of the feet.

I really wish at least one of these articles was a lot more explicit about the parameters of the male Brazilian. I want to know.

Anyway, there are some wonderful moments in today's Salon article, like the response the writer got when he asked his bros about getting Brozilians--"they were, in a word, appalled. They became almost angry at my suggestion that it had ever been a trend."

Also: a story about tazing an inappropriate customer, and the no-nonsense Ukrainian spa aesthetician who says: "We hire only older women for the waxing, like your grandmother. We don't hire the model drop-dead gorgeous girl. Otherwise men become uncomfortable and afraid." Makes sense. You're pretty vulnerable down there with your legs up in the air, though a Ukrainian grandmother brandishing a pot of hot wax sounds terrifying enough.

[tx Jess!]

August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim and the new Michael Cera

Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim

I had exerted monumental effort to keep my expectations in check for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The cast, the music, the style, Michael Cera, Edgar Wright--I was getting really excited about this movie, and it would have been easy to walk in expecting (Shaun of the Dead x "Arrested Development"), only to be confronted with (Run Fatboy Run - Year One).

But there was nothing to worry about--this movie is completely wonderful and is the best time I've had in the theater this year (even if the fight scenes get a little samey.) Edgar Wright understands his genres so completely, and is unapologetically of, by, and for his own generation and its pop culture. Even though this movie is about people in their early 20's, the references, music (both the soundtrack and original songs by Beck), clothes, and video game style are a lot more early 90's than 2010. If you're approximately Edgar Wright's age (36) you will totally get this movie, even if you've never read a comic book and haven't played a video game since Zelda.

I have no idea if actual 22 year-olds will like or get it or not. I would guess they would be a little puzzled by love interest Ramona Flowers and her personal style, which is sort of late-80's goth with a touch of early-90's riot grrrl and really has no point of reference to how cool young women in movies dress now. But she made me want to dig out my old boots and A-line miniskirts from college.

All the stuff about relationships, evil exes, and trying against all odds to get that one person who is far cooler than you are to go out with you is universal. As is the realization that, no matter how wronged and heartbroken you may feel, there are also times that you're the heartbreaker asshole.

Which brings me to something else that's great about this movie: Michael Cera gets to play a dick. For the last 6 years or so, Michael Cera has pretty much played variations of George-Michael Bluth: an earnest, sweet kid, socially awkward, a romantic, sort of a loser with sincere intentions. He's so good at it that he's had to play this same role over and over again. Sometime around Juno, this started to get a little tedious.

But in Scott Pilgrim, he's not necessarily the nicest guy in the world. He knows how to play the sweet, sincere puppy-dog type, but sometimes it's an act. Some of the time, Pilgrim is manipulative, selfish, and petulant. He's got a long, unflattering history with the ladies, and he's a little bit of a jerk.

It turns out Michael Cera is great at playing a little bit of a jerk! It was such a relief. It reminds me of that period in the 90's when Hugh Grant played one stammering, awkward, floppy-haired, increasingly annoying romantic after another (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, etc.) Then he did Bridget Jones and About a Boy and played unrepentant pricks in each movie. He was phenomenal. Such a relief to see him break out of his type, and such a surprise to see how good he was at playing selfish assholes, even if they come around by the end.

So hopefully Michael Cera will get more opportunities to embrace his inner jerk.

Note: despite my own love for this movie and the monumental marketing behind it (I think I've seen an interview with Edgar Wright or Michal Cera in every single publication and website I read [good one in The AV Club]) it didn't do that well this weekend at the box office. Everybody's been watching Eat Pray Love and The Expendables. Too bad: I'm willing to bet Scott Pilgrim is a lot more fun and will make you feel much cooler than either of those.

July 22, 2010

TUSH 2010: I'm out of my league

Nicki Minaj

Every summer, there's one song that blah blah blah "totally ubiquitous summer hit". Hence, TUSH. In previous years, blah blah blah Rihanna blah blah Nelly, examples of summer songs you could not avoid hearing even if you wanted to, blah blah Rite Aid, car stereos, beach snack bars, your clock radio, blah blah blah blah "Macarena".

This year's TUSH isn't clear yet, at least not that I can tell. The contenders blah blah blah "OMG", "Bulletproof", both songs that I still hear all the time, but blah blah blah blah released 4 months and over a year ago.

Blah blah blah freaking hate every single thing about Katy Perry blah blah don't care how many goddamn weeks on Billboard blah blah blah Black Eyed Peas.

In New York Mag's "Song of the Summer" posts, it seems like they just look at the charts, without any of the more nuanced cultural analysis blah blah blah 2005 was obviously not "We Belong Together". It was "Hollaback Girl". There are rules here, people, and one of them is that the TUSH is never a melismatic slow jam.

Anyway. This year doesn't have a clear front-runner other than Katy Perry, who I refuse to acknowledge based on her affront to everything that is good and righteous in this world. If you feel like you know what this year's TUSH is, and it's a recently released feel-good, sunny tune that you cannot avoid hearing constantly in every aspect of your daily life, please tell me. I stopped being in the right demographic for this many TUSHes ago.

One dark horse entry for a late bloomer TUSH: Nicki Minaj's "Your Love". I've heard this song twice on the radio in the last couple of days, and I have Top 40 radio on for 5 minutes or less most days, so it's getting out there. It uses a sample from Annie Lennox's "No More I Love You's" and the girl-on-girl sword fighting video just came out. It's catchy, a little less energetic than a classic TUSH, but still could be a contender.

I like Nicki: she's been around for a few years, dresses like Anime Barbie or radioactive Wonder Woman, and is the first female rapper to have a #1 song on the Rap charts since Missy Elliott's "Work It". "Your Love" has been at #1 for two weeks now, so that's got to count for something.

I'll check back in August--by that time the one true TUSH will be exalted in all its glory.

June 25, 2010

World Cup in America

Diana Ross at the World Cup opening ceremony, 1994

Now that the US team has done well enough to advance to the next round, it's time for World Cup fever to sweep America! We like sports that we're good at. The game against Ghana tomorrow afternoon (2:30 on ABC!) is probably going to be the most watched soccer game yet this year.

The first time I remember being aware of the World Cup was in 1994, when it was hosted here in the US. In doing some research about that year's tournament, my friend T-Rock happened upon the description of the opening ceremony, which was held in Chicago. Here's the Wikipedia entry. It keeps getting better:

The opening ceremony of the World Cup was held on 17 June at Chicago's Soldier Field. Numerous dignitaries attended, including US President Bill Clinton, Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl and President of Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The ceremony was emceed by Oprah Winfrey.

In addition, Daryl Hall, Jon Secada and Diana Ross gave musical performances. Ross was also supposed to kick a football into the goal from the penalty spot at the end of her performance, with the goal then splitting in two as part of a pre-orchestrated stunt. She kicked the ball wide to the left, missing the goal, but the goalposts were collapsed anyway in accordance with the stunt plans.

From the American perspective, the most important aspect of the 1994 World Cup is definitely the video for Daryl Hall's horrific theme song, "Gloryland", which plays sort of like a 9/11 tribute video combined with a Disney World ad. It also features segments from the opening ceremony, which demonstrate that even a serious sports country like the United States is powerless to resist creating a big ridiculous Eurotrashtastic explosion of kitsch when planning a soccer-related gala event:

You can watch just Diana Ross's failed penalty kick and exploding goalposts here. For future reference, don't stage the crescendo of your globally televised soccer event around a 50 year-old diva scoring a goal.

June 15, 2010

Shinnecock tribe promises new world of casinos and cheap cigarettes

Smoking at the slot machines

Today the Bureau of Indian Affairs formally created a new tribe: the Shinnecock, who live on the east end of Long Island on a small reservation, but hadn't yet been federally recognized. An exciting day for native people! Tribal trustee Lance Gumbs said in an AP interview, "This is the most historic moment in Shinnecock history. Any discussion of a casino is a secondary thought."

Obviously, the rest of the article, and all the other press I've seen, is about a casino. Look, New York, it's the dawning of a brand new day! With a shiny new casino and as many tax-free cigarettes as you can cram into your car!

The Shinnecock people wanted to build a casino on their reservation right in the middle of the Hamptons in 2003. It was the resulting uproar from local rich people, not keen on the idea of the Hamptons being turned into a giant parking lot for the unwashed gambling addicts of Long Island, that led the tribe to seek federal recognition.

Now that they've got it, it seems that they're authorized to fill up their land with video slots, but they can't open a casino with table games. New York State and the federal government have to agree to the larger kind of casino, but if they do, the tribe could open it on any public trust land, not necessarily on their own reservation. Apparently they're considering Belmont Park, Nassau Coliseum, or maybe if we're extra lucky, somewhere within the 5 boroughs of New York City!

Let's build a casino in the middle of Gramercy Park.

June 8, 2010

French feminist encourages us all to be bad moms

Elisabeth Badinter

Feminist cultural theorists tend to be a radical, provocative bunch--they have to be. But it's the French feminists that have a special place in my heart. Maybe it's their legacy of existentialism, sexual freedom, and Joan of Arc, but the French feminists have always been way more incendiary and out there than their American counterparts. While Betty Freidan was hypothesizing that maybe women want to do something with their lives other than vacuuming, Monique Wittig was claiming that she didn't have a vagina because the naming of body parts imposed an artificial order and a masculine bias on the natural body.

Anyway, a contemporary feminist writer, Elisabeth Badinter, has gotten a lot of attention for her new book, "Le Conflit: la femme et la mère" ("Conflict: The Woman and the Mother") which isn't even out in an English language version yet. I first heard about the book on the Bust blog, which reported that it's causing a major ruckus in France over her argument that women should be women first and mothers second. Women are pressured to be perfect moms, which increasingly means staying at home, breastfeeding, making your own baby food, and using washable diapers--things that many women aren't interested in and others don't have the luxury to even consider.

In a great article in the London Times, Badinter says, "It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food, and disposable diapers were all stages in the liberation of women." As for moralizing about women who eat unpasteurized cheese and drink the occasional glass of wine while pregnant, she says, "You don't enter a religious order when you have children."

Over the weekend, the NY Times did a piece on Badinter. It's in the Style section, where the Times continues to publish all its journalism about women's professional lives. Oh my God that pisses me off. Anyway, in the article, she advocates for a more open-minded approach to motherhood, letting women raise their children they way they want without passing judgment. A mother of three, she says, "I'm a mediocre mother like the vast majority of women, because I'm human, I'm not a she-cat."

Environmentalists and some feminists don't like her argument, but I think I love her. I also agree that many women don't seem to want other women to make their own decisions about how to raise their kids. When I hear women my age (always women, never men) vehemently insisting that all mothers must breastfeed their babies and women who don't are bad and selfish, I can't help but think of social conservatives spouting off about gay people being sinful or America being a Christian nation. For some reason, many progressive thinkers have no problem telling women what they can and can't do with their kids or during pregnancy, but would never consider telling other people what kind of sexuality or religious beliefs to have.

Hopefully when Badinter's book comes out in translation, it will inspire more women to embrace a feminist approach to motherhood, i.e. do what you want, and let other people do what they want. Have kids, don't have kids. Breastfeed, bottle feed. It's up to you. Do you see fathers passionately condemning each other over disposable diapers?

Also, I love that Jezebel used a photo of Lucille Bluth, bad mom role model, in their post about Badinter.

June 7, 2010

Club security: has it come to this?

Water Taxi Beach, LIC

I headed out to Long Island City yesterday afternoon to see Tom Middleton and his party DJ house/mashup style and frolic in the early evening sun. I'd heard they have pretty extensive security there, but let me tell you my story. It's graphic.

At the main entrance, the security lady went through my knapsack, rummaging around and quickly checking out the wallet, lipgloss, tissues, and magazines. She shook out a pair of shorts and a tank top, then came to a pair of underpants I had in there from the previous day. "We've got a pair of panties here!" she said to another security guy. "More panties?" he said.

She fixated on my dirty undies at the bottom of my bag and sort of pawed at them. I was lost. "Is there something, um, wrong with...panties?" I asked, not sure if I should be trying to explain what I was doing with underwear in my bag or what. She said, "Well, a lot of girls have been spraying GHB onto a pair of panties and carrying them into the club in their purse. Then they sniff their panties and get a hit."

I reacted with an expression of speechless confusion and horror, which must have convinced the security lady of my innocence. She handed me my bag and let me inside with my non-GHB-enhanced panties, that I'm very confident no one would have any desire to sniff.

People! Is this what we've come to? Huffing our panties in clubs? Creating security alerts over a pair of embarrassingly non-sexy cotton underpants in a backpack?

It was a funny and ridiculous situation, but the absurdity of it reminded me of airport security and how the TSA adds new rules in response to whatever attempted terrorist act happened most recently. We have to take off our shoes and can bring on only travel sizes of liquids, not because anyone necessarily thinks travelers are hiding bombs in their flip-flops or Vitamin Water bottles, but in reaction to something Richard Reid did in 2001. You raise suspicion at a club if you have a pair of underwear in your bag because someone got busted smuggling drugs on her panties.

I have to believe these reactionary security measures are designed to create an illusion of security rather than to make us more secure. People who are determined to bring drugs into a club or a bomb onto a plane will just move on from shoes and bottles of liquids and underpants and find some other way that security workers don't screen. We've gotten ourselves into a Red Queen's race, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

Keep your panties on, ladies.

April 29, 2010

Tanning is a bigger deal than I thought

Kardashian with tanlines

When the healthcare reform bill finally passed, one of the odd things to get thrown in at the last minute was a 10% tax on tanning salon sessions. In an earlier version of the bill, it was only a 5% tax on tanning, with another 5% tax on cosmetic surgery. But in the end, they kept facelifts tax-free and doubled the tanning tax for an estimated 30 million people per year.

This decision made more sense today after I read about a recent, crazy study that Sloan-Kettering did on tanning, which suggests that something like 20% of college students surveyed are actually addicted to tanning. Over half of the kids surveyed have done indoor tanning. Even if you look only at the ones who have tanned, 40% of them are out-of-control tanners.

Somehow I'd never noticed this, but tanning is hugely popular. So clearly, this 10% tax was a wise legislative move. If you tax the hell out of cigarettes and alcohol, and we all keep paying higher and higher prices for them, why not tax something else people are powerless to resist?

Salon owners in the $6 billion industry aren't happy about the tax, of course. Sessions only cost about $7 on average, and I can't see a hardcore tanning addict fussing over 70 cents.

Rick Kueber, founder of Indiana salon Sun Tan City, explains why he thinks the tax is unfair because of its disproportionate effect on one segment of the population: white ladies. "Let's call this what it is. It's a tax on working, white women," he says. He points out that wealthy people enjoy their plastic surgery tax-free, and I think is also strangely implying that those lucky Americans with naturally non-pasty skin are getting a free ride through some sort of melanin tax shelter.

I don't understand tanning at all, but apparently there are other studies out there that suggest the UV rays give tanners an endorphin boost, so maybe the appeal is more psychological than aesthetic. I used to work with a woman who displayed a weird tanning obsession, calling furtively to book sessions whenever she was having a bad day, and she really loved tanning even though her 26 year-old skin had all the suppleness of a Slim Jim.

April 26, 2010

R-rated movies and child corruption

The Howling

A recent study found that kids who are allowed to watch R-rated movies are a lot more likely to start drinking at younger ages. The researchers surveyed middle school kids, asking them whether their parents let them watch R-rated movies or not, then surveyed the same kids again two years later and asked if they'd started drinking yet. Only 3% of kids who were never allowed to watch R-rated movies drank, compared to a Goldschlager-chugging 25% of kids who were allowed to watch R-rated movies "all the time".

One of the researchers said the data suggests that it's the R-rated movies themselves that lead kids to drink: "seeing the adult content actually changes their personality."

What it says to me is that, for better or worse, kids with more permissive parents end up drinking sooner than kids with more restrictive parents. But I wonder about those kids who aren't actually allowed to watch R-rated movies, but sneakily figure out how to watch them anyway. Which is probably most kids in the 10-14 age range, especially the ones with HBO. Do they get into even worse stuff than the kids whose parents let them watch some R-rated movies and maybe let them have a little wine at special events? What are those sneaky kids doing by the time they get to 9th grade? Snorting mescaline and watching snuff films?

Using myself as a test case, I thought back to the first R-rated movie I ever saw. Because we're talking about the '80's here, my first experiences were all horror. I watched about half of Children of the Corn at age 11 at a neighborhood party in the TV room where the kids were hanging out. Probably none of the parents there knew their kids were watching it. It could have been a pretty subversive viewing experience, considering I was in a roomful of preteens at a grown-up party watching a movie about kids killing all the adults in town, but unfortunately, it's a pretty terrible movie. Not actually good enough to be subversive. I left the room when things started to get heavy, human-sacrifice-wise.

The first one I watched all the way through was The Howling, a much better movie, at around age 13. This is a great first R-rated horror movie for a kid to see: it's equal parts cool, scary, and ridiculous, and plays out like an investigative conspiracy movie with Dee Wallace as a reporter accidentally mixed up with a colony of werewolves. I loved it. No kind of parental permission was involved in watching this one, either.

Then shortly after that, some friends and I sneaked into a movie theater showing Action Jackson, an awful movie that made a lot of money and didn't quite destroy Carl Weathers' career. I loved sneaking into the theater, but hated the movie. Things got a lot better with repeated, obsessive viewings of The Lost Boys on video.

Even though my parents didn't actually give me permission to watch any of these movies, they definitely let me drink a little bit at summer parties and the odd holiday dinner. I wonder what happens to kids who watch higher quality R-rated movies than I happened to see? If a 12 year-old watches Fargo and Chinatown, will they actually start drinking at a later age because they're more likely to turn into film geeks and spend their Saturday nights staying in and watching TCM?

What was your first R-rated movie? Did it corrupt you?

April 22, 2010

Bob Saget frat party

Bob Saget at a college party

A few months ago, I saw an article about a new reality show coming up on A&E that will feature Bob Saget going around America, spending time with various sub-cultures and documenting all the weird things they do. Some of the show's sub-cultures would probably be biker gangs, mail-order brides, a survivalist cult, a fraternity, and the Amish.

Obviously this sounds like an excellent show, but I was especially excited because it sounded sort of like a TV version of some of David Foster Wallace's best essays about sub-cultures and regional cultural events around America that are full of people who are part of a very specific sub-culture, though often are not at all aware that their culture is different or notable in any way.

If you think about DFW's essays where he interacts with people who go on cruises ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"), people at rural state ag fairs ("Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All"), or people at local food festivals ("Consider the Lobster"), they could have a lot in common with watching Bob Saget at a barn raising or at a frat formal. Saget will probably be a less brilliant and analytical (and, OK, neurotic) guide through American sub-cultures than DFW, but I bet he'll be just as eager to blend in and become an accepted temporary member of the group.

Anyway, production of the show is happening right now at Cornell, where Saget is spending time at Seal & Serpent, an independent society that was apparently more open than the mainstream Greek frats to letting TV crews in to record their secret rituals and underage drinking. Producers apparently went to initiation (a friend who was a member of S&S back in the day says Bob Saget would have made his own initiation "a lot cooler") and will also record a weekend party and that most bizarre of college events, where teens put on dressy clothes and behave like feral libertines at an orgy, the fraternity formal.

Cornell students are excitedly following Saget all over Ithaca, and I would bet Seal & Serpent's party this weekend will be really well attended.

March 15, 2010

Don't wear your Granite State gear to Gatwick

Live Free or Die t-shirt

London's Gatwick airport recently apologized to a traveler who had been stopped while going through security and asked to turn his t-shirt inside out before proceeding through. The security worker said some airlines might find the shirt "a bit threatening" because of its small printed slogan: "Freedom or die".

While the grammar of that statement is a little shaky (wouldn't it be "freedom or death"?) a t-shirt slogan isn't exactly the greatest security risk airports face. The man in the shirt, Lloyd Berks, said of his outfit choice, "It is turquoise and white, it is just a design t-shirt, it is not gothic or in your face."

Nothing like some of the more overtly gothic t-shirts one can buy in New Hampshire-themed retailers, that proudly display the popular though sort of politically flamboyant state motto, "Live Free or Die".

The Red Sox-inspired shirt in the photo above, sold as a "Dead Sox shirt" online, is probably whimsical and hilarious in New Hampshire. British airport security might not get the baseball/guns/libertarianism visual joke, though--they'll just see a gun freak in a terrorist shirt.

February 16, 2010

She's everyone's Sharona

Sharona Alperin

Doug Fieger, singer and guitarist of The Knack, died over the weekend of lung cancer (here's his obituary.) But his teenage girlfriend from the 70s, Sharon Alperin, still looms large in pop music history as the subject of their biggest hit "My Sharona", that classic tale of unrestrained sexual coercion.

Fieger presumably built his entire career around that one song, which was #1 in the charts for 6 weeks in 1979 and has been the inspiration for many parodies and tributes and the scene from Reality Bites that ushered people my age into generational nostalgia, even though we were still in college when the movie came out.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that Sharona, that braless teenage siren in a tank top, has used her tangential celebrity to her own advantage: her real estate website URL is, one third of the site's page on her experience is about the song, and she was interviewed for Entertainment Weekly about Fieger's death (she "spent the entire weekend" with his body. Ew.)

If the entire universe is going to hear how a 26 year-old guy in a band pressured you into having sex with him when you were 17, you might as well spend the next 30 years cashing in. Go, Sharona.

Note: The Knack's second biggest single, "Good Girls Don't", is also catchy as hell and has even more salacious lyrics--see the Wikipedia notes on the "clean" version.

February 11, 2010

Aspies are expressing their emotions, and they're pissed

Darius McCollum, train lover

With the announcement of the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the industry standard for diagnosing mental problems, there's been talk that Asperger Syndrome will no longer be included as a separate diagnosis. The disorder was first introduced in the current version of the DSM, which was released in 1994, but now a lot of psychiatrists think it's part of the larger spectrum of autism disorders, and should just be grouped in as a mild form of autism.

So a lot of people with Asperger Syndrome, or "aspies" as they sometimes refer to themselves, don't like this at all. Aspies don't have the same language problems as people with more severe autism, but tend to get into obsessive behaviors and have similar problems with social interaction. And they want to maintain their distinct identity.

One of the psychiatrists who supports the change in the new DSM, Dr. Mina Dulcan, says their reaction to the change is just a symptom of being an aspie: "One of the characteristics of people with Asperger's is that they're very resistant to change."

But wait: the reason people with Asperger's want there to be a separate disorder called "Asperger's" is that they have Asperger's? Dr. Dulcan is arguing that there's no rational reason why someone might want their disorder to have its own name and diagnosis; if they think that way, it's just because they're mentally disabled.

She goes on to say that the change in the manual "makes scientific sense. I'm sorry if it hurts people's feelings."

Hm. It doesn't sound like she's really sorry. Sounds like she's being pretty insensitive, actually. Could it be that Dr. Dulcan is displaying lack of empathy for other people's feelings and incomprehension of emotional cues? Is Dr. Mina Dulcan herself a secret, self-hating aspie?!

Whatever she is, she's not very good at making her case.

Here are two of my favorite stories about people with Asperger Syndrome, both involving the subway: there's Darius McCollum (in the photo above) who has been arrested dozens of times for MTA-related crimes, usually impersonating an MTA employee or, a few times, stealing trains or buses. There was a great piece in Harper's about him in 2002, and a play called Boy Steals Train based on his life came out in 2003.

Then there's Francisco Hernandez, Jr., an 13 year-old boy with Asperger's who rode the subway for 11 days straight last year. He got on the D train in Brooklyn to avoid getting yelled at by his mom for not doing his homework, and just kept riding. From the Times article:

He says he subsisted on the little he could afford at subway newsstands: potato chips, croissants, jelly rolls, neatly folding the wrappers and saving them in the backpack. He drank bottled water. He used the bathroom in the Stillwell Avenue station in Coney Island. Otherwise, he says, he slipped into a kind of stupor, sleeping much of the time, his head on his book bag. "At some point I just stopped feeling anything," he recalled.

February 8, 2010

Watch the game, hate your life

FloTV Super Bowl ad

I noticed a theme in some of last night's Super Bowl ads: in addition to the usual inscrutably unfunny Doritos ads and unoriginal but instantly recognizable Go Daddy ads (those people really understand brand consistency) there was an undercurrent of male misery. It's standard for ads to make the viewer feel uncomfortable or insecure, then offer the product as a solution to your self-esteem problem, but a couple of these ads suggested that the problem in your life is not really your athlete's foot--it's your girlfriend.

The Dodge ad was an especially bitter girl-hating ad, which is odd, considering that it's basically one long whiny bitch fest (with a few pissy little jokes thrown in.) It features lots of guys looking directly into the camera, with a voiceover listing all the indignities they suffer as part of living with a woman, such as being forced to separate the recycling. Life for a man, according to this ad, is an endless series of irritations piled on by that bitch you married (or who's pressuring you for a ring, probably) and the only recourse is to drive a Dodge, the one thing in this world she can't take away from you.

Geez, guys, if it's really that horrific to pick up your underwear, you could find a lady with less stringent household tidiness expectations. Or support Chrysler by suffering in silence and driving a shitbox car.

Then there's the poor doofus who let his girlfriend drag him along underwear shopping (above) instead of letting him watch basketball. Another hapless fellow whose simple yearning for happiness has been denied by his selfish cow girlfriend who needs a new bra. Poor, poor widdle man!

The long-suffering man ad that I did like was the one for Dove Men, which is admittedly an absurdly tough product to try to sell during the Super Bowl. Anyway, the Dove Men approach is to depict one man's life, from fetus to adulthood, and the many challenges he has faced and overcome along the way. Living with a lady in this ad can also be a trial, but these difficulties are shown as small victories to be proud of rather than opportunities to complain about how much women suck. And it's funny. A decent ad.

Actually, the Dove Men ad is probably targeted exclusively to women. How many guys out there are going to purchase Dove Men bodywash at the supermarket? They could at least rebrand this line to something like Falcon or, to continue the political metaphor, Hawk. This ad probably presents a less toxically bitter attitude toward women because they're the buyers. (Though I see that Dove got last night's MVP Drew Brees to appear on the website, lathering up a very masculine and non-drying foam in the shower.)

My favorites were the Kia ad about toys going out on the town (particularly the shot of the robot and a human in a Vegas club, both doing the robot) and the Audi ad using Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" as a soundtrack for scenes of an army of draconian eco-fascists handcuffing people for using styrofoam cups. I love it.

You can watch all the ads on Hulu, though you have to watch a few seconds of a Coke ad before you watch each of the other ads, which seems unjustifiably cheap.

February 1, 2010

Tweens and Axe

Tween boy loves his Axe

In the Styles section, the NY Times ran an article about tween boys and their devotion to Axe body spray that's basically the exact same piece that the Washington Post ran almost 4 years earlier. Both articles are great reads and very funny, but the story has hardly changed over the past few years: boys are becoming self-conscious at younger ages, and 11 year-olds are dousing themselves in $6 bottles of spray perfume in an attempt to copy the older kids and get girls.

A few interesting things both articles point out:

  • The companies that produce these popular products insist that their target markets are 18 to 24 year-old men, despite the evidence that a lot of their customers haven't reached puberty yet. The Post suggests that this is because their marketing is so direct in its claims that using Axe (or whatever) will make you irresistible to women, and no one wants to think about a 12 year-old boy getting busy. The Times says Axe marketers are reluctant to talk about their younger fan base publicly because "nothing would make older teenager run from a product faster than for its manufacturers to acknowledge that it's a must-have among the sixth-grade set."
  • Young boys appear to interpret Axe's obviously jokey ads, in which guys wearing body spray are swarmed with lust-crazed girls, pretty much literally. A 12 year-old at a suburban Maryland middle school said, "I was watching the commercial, and there was this guy and he was mobbed by a bunch of girls, and I thought, 'Wow, that's tight! ' So I went to CVS and bought it."
  • Everybody apart from middle school boys seems to hate it, because boys tend to use it too liberally or as a substitute for bathing: "It's not necessarily a hygiene thing," said Paul Begley, a physical education teacher at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, ME. "If they've been sweating, they'll use it as a mask instead of a shower."

    And my favorite quote of these articles, from 14 year-old Allison Testamark: "Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," she said, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

Also, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman (who has things to say about 12 year-old boys highlighting their hair), has a new book out called Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials. Tina Fey, who adapted her earlier book for Mean Girls says, "You can't put this book down... or it will talk about you while you're out of the room."

January 5, 2010

You can't help but love that Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart is a small, simple movie about people you've seen before in lots of other movies--an alcoholic country singer past his prime, a woman who's been through hell but is willing to take a chance on him, and a straight-shooting Texan played by Robert Duvall. It's a formula you've seen a lot of times before, but you've heard lots of versions of "Your Cheatin' Heart", too.

It's easy to compare the story and its style to other movies, especially The Wrestler and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The main character's very listenable songs were written by T-Bone Burnett, who also did the music for O Brother Where Art Thou?, and one of the musicians in the movie who co-wrote the theme song is named Ryan Bingham, the same name as George Clooney's character in Up in the Air.

I bet Clooney and Jeff Bridges are going to be the top contenders for an Oscar this year, but Bridges is probably going to get it. Last year, the race was basically between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, and because both performances were great, and because Mickey Rourke pissed off a lot of people in Hollywood for the past 20 years, it went to Sean Penn. This year, Jeff Bridges gives a similarly fantastic performance of a really similar character, but everyone loves Jeff Bridges, and he's been nominated four times already and never won. So I think he's got it.

Politics aside, he deserves an Oscar for this. This is a role and a movie that could spill over into sappy, self-pitying melodrama, like bad country music does, but it stays honest and wistful and a little bit reserved, like good country music. He does all his own singing (as does Colin Farrell) and guitar playing. He also spends the majority of the movie with his pants partially unbuttoned, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his character.

The Times did a good article about how Crazy Heart almost didn't get released this year. The story has a lot of similarities to Slumdog Millionaire, last year's surprise hit and big Oscar winner. It was only toward the end of 2009 that Fox Searchlight bought Crazy Heart from Viacom, which produced it through Country Music Television but was going to release it straight to cable or video. Fox originally planned to wait until 2010 to release it in theaters, and only decided to do it in 2009 a couple of months ago.

So far, Jeff Bridges has been nominated for a Golden Globe, and the theme song got a nomination as well. Both will probably get Oscar nominations, too, and the movie should get a much wider release. It's an accessible, not-too-cheesy movie about a rough but lovable country singer, so I could see it doing well. One of the movie's producers says he hopes it "has legs in a part of the country that is typically underserved by Hollywood," i.e. country fans in middle America who might not go nuts for a movie whose hero is an antisocial jerk who flies around the country blithely firing people from their jobs.

December 7, 2009

Holiday gifts for kids

Mr. Squiggles and Chunk

Like a lot of people out there, I have a growing number of small children in my life, and all those children need presents. When you don't spend a whole lot of time around kids, it can be hard to keep up with their interests and obsessions. For example, I only recently found out about Bakugan and its vast universe of Battle Brawler merchandise that any self-respecting 6 year-old is required to possess. You could randomly select a few toys from this product line, but how do you know if you're choosing the coolest action figure, video game, or, God help you, activity book?

And now that this year's insanely popular Zhu Zhu hamsters have turned out to have too much of the toxic fire-resisting agent antimony in them (surprise!), you've got to find some alternatives.

If you're playing the role of the cool but untrustworthy aunt/uncle/family friend, you could just give all the kids on your list a carton of Kool cigarettes and a handle of whiskey. Or if you really want to ensure that you'll never be invited to a Christmas celebration again, give them a new book for families that I received an email about today, just in time for the holidays. It's called Why He Hates You!, and it's a book that invites mothers and sons to explore all the ways they hate each other.

The targeted audience of the book is black women who raised their children alone and black boys raised by single moms, but why not share the hate? Author Janks Morton uses his own experiences as the basis for uncovering "angst-creating parental techniques such as negotiation, manipulation, and castigation"--techniques that, let's be honest, span all races and backgrounds, and lead to deep-rooted parent-hating. Actually, mother-hating.

(Not surprisingly, Janks is a big conservative who is very unhappy about Obama's stimulus efforts and thinks making a case for reparations is "a waste of energy." His hero is his dad, Janks Morton, Sr., and in case you were unclear on this, he hates his mom.)

Give out a few copies of Why He Hates You! to the boys and mothers in your life, and watch the magic of the Christmas season unfold.

November 30, 2009

Switzerland and its nuanced form of bigotry

Anti-minaret signs in Switzerland

In a spasm of racist panic, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban all new construction of minarets. Muslims make up only 5% of the Swiss population, and there are only four minarets in the entire country, but enough people are scared of Muslims to "want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland," according to the leading political party that sponsored the referendum, which sounds about as reasonable as hetero Americans being afraid of the approaching takeover of the country by the 5% of the population that's gay. Which, well, right, OK.

Yeah, minarets are just symbols: it's not like Islam itself has been banned. The Swiss just hate hate hate minarets! Muslims will just have to practice their religion more quietly and unobtrusively. Sort of like, say, sitting in the back of the bus.

Despite the fact that it's got a lot of reactionary bigots in it, Switzerland is a little like the New Hampshire of Europe. They're as close to libertarian as Europe probably gets: taxes are relatively low and they seem to want the rest of the world to just leave them alone and let them shelter questionably-gained cash for the world's shady businessmen. The Swiss are not joiners. They're not quite members of the EU, they're into direct democracy, and they still half-pretend to be neutral.

On the positive side, Switzerland offers civil unions for same-sex couples with most of the same rights and benefits as married couples. And true to its libertarian tradition of not messing around in other people's business, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage this year. It's helping to push the US in its jerky, slow-motion lurch toward marriage equality.

But come on. Switzerland just violated international human rights conventions by banning the religious buildings of a small minority. They look like backward morons.

So the real lesson of this story is: New Hampshire beats Switzerland in the battle of libertarian non-conformist weirdo states.

November 4, 2009

Risk: the movie that takes at least 8 days to watch

Risk board game

Risk, the favorite board game of global domination nerds who think nothing of playing same game for days at a time, is going to be adapted into a movie. I'm hoping it'll be pretty good, with lots of cool, unstoppable characters from all corners of the world strategizing for epic takeover, which since this game involves human soldiers and not just robot machines, could actually happen.

The interesting thing here is that the game was created in 1957 by a French filmmaker, Albert Lamorisse, who called it La Conquete du Monde. Considering France's experiences in the first half of the 20th century, it must have been a great fantasy for French people wanting to experience taking over the world instead of getting invaded and occupied.

But Lamorisse actually had a much gentler career as a short filmmaker: he made The Red Balloon, the 1956 short movie about a turtlenecked boy, Pascal, who befriends a friendly, sentient balloon. His own kids played the boy and girl in the movie. I feel like this movie was on PBS all the time in the 80s, and it's sweet and kind of mesmerizing, almost like a silent film, with a lovely score and almost no dialogue.

And it's online, so you can watch the whole thing!

It would be great if the new Risk movie was produced in the same style as The Red Balloon, with some pensive soldiers in turtleneck sweaters running through picturesque city streets, followed by bands of inquisitive colorful pinwheels as they amass their empires through whimsical, French military domination.

October 28, 2009

Phillies/Yankees borderland

Phillies/Yankees fans map

The Yankees-Phillies World Series starts tonight, and the close geographical proximity of the two teams means emotions are running high along the northeast corridor. With Philly and NYC just a two hour drive apart, New Jersey has become the two teams' shared suburban tangle of fandom. Where do Phillies fans stop and Yankees fans begin?

The Times sort of looked at this question today by examining the volume of ticket sales and people looking for tickets for World Series games in New York and in Philly, with a map. Phillies fans seem to be less interested in finding tickets for New York games than Yankees fans are for tickets to Philly games, but there's obviously a huge population difference, and there are fewer Philadelphia game tickets because the stadium there is smaller. For whatever reason, tickets to Philly games are going to be harder to find: "The average ticket listed for Games 1 and 2 in New York is $650, compared to about $1,500 for the three games in Philadelphia."

But that doesn't answer the mystery of New Jersey and where the dividing line falls. A local Philly site has an actual map with Solid Phillies, Solid Yankees, and Leaning areas color-coded. A poll reports New Jersey residents favor the Yankees over the Phillies 44 to 20, but, the site claims, this is due to so many New Yorkers who have "spilled over the bridges with their football teams and packed themselves together in North Jersey like rats."

According to this map, it's Yankees country down almost the whole Jersey shore, while Phillies fans are holding on way up the Delaware River border with Pennsylvania, mostly because New York sports radio airwaves can't reach that far.

This kind of mapping of sports fans in border states reminds me of an exhaustive study the Times did back in 2006, in which they drew a line across Connecticut, showing how Yankees and Red Sox fans divided the state. Mets fans, to their credit, apparently aren't interested in living in Connecticut.

The tricky Yankees/Sox border seemed more important in 2006 than it is now, maybe, but I bet the Phillies/Yankees border will be getting more scrutiny and documentation if the Phillies keep getting into the playoffs all the time.

October 18, 2009

Putin: Everybody Dance Now

Putin rocks it

Ever eager to show the world that Russia is an equal to the West, Putin has suggested that Russia host a new international song competition. It will be just like the long-running televised Eurovision song contest, except it will be called "Intervision", and the only participating countries will be Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These are all the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which according to member countries is "not a NATO clone". OK.

Kazakh Eurovision sounds almost too good to be true. [Cue video of Borat singing "Everybody Dance Now".]

I'd love to see what kind of elaborately staged pop songs are put forward by quasi-authoritarian states as part of their effort to show the world that Central Asians can do flamboyantly choreographed dance numbers in glittery makeup and spandex dirndls while sing synth-pop, too, just like the Swedes and Germans.

In response to Putin's idea, Eurovision says "it would be delighted to license Mr Putin the Eurovision Song Contest format," but they can't do Intervision without paying up.

Russia actually won Eurovision last year, so they were this year's host country. This year Norway won. Since Putin seems to be a man who doesn't enjoy losing, the upside of Intervision would be that Russia would probably get to win every year, with maybe an occasional courtesy victory for China.

As a side note, Sacha Baron Cohen is reportedly on board to play a new, non-Borat character who enters the Eurovision contest in a movie with the self-explanatory title Eurovision: The Movie. It's being written by Dan Mazer, one of the writers for the Ali G/Borat/Bruno empire, so I think it's going to be great. A Eurovision parody is such a logical next step for these guys, though the biggest challenge might be creating parody acts that are funnier and weirder than the real ones.

Here are a few Eurovision videos to give you an idea of how bizarre a spectacle it can be, both intentionally and unintentionally funny. Norway's winning song from this year, an emo violin folkpop tune; Apocalyptica, a Finnish hard rock cello band from 2007, with stage dancers wearing some sort of pelt tutus; and Ukrainian comedian/insane disco robot Verka Serduchka from 2007.

October 1, 2009

Coen Brothers make fun of their movies, their fans, Judaism...

A Serious Man

The funniest and most aggravating interview subjects working in movies today have got to be the Coen Brothers. Getting them to talk in a revealing, insightful way about their movies seems to be just about impossible. The experience of interviewing the Coens about what their movies mean is probably not far off from asking a marginally observant Jew to explain exactly what's so important about circumcision.

They're doing press for A Serious Man, which comes out tomorrow, but the interviews shed more light on how much fun it would be to hang out with these guys in regular life, and not so much on the writing/directing movies part.

In an interview in Time Out, they reveal that they wrote this screenplay at the same time they were doing Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men, which is pretty funny if you think back to how many critics slammed Burn for being inconsequential and fluffy compared to the weighty metaphysics of No Country. Both were funny, dark movies about ordinary people trying to get something more than what life has offered them, and failing completely. The main characters either end up right back where they started, or burned from their failure, or dead. You could say that about most of their movies. Yeah, I liked No Country better, but both movies were perfect examples of what the Coens are good at.

But after that big reveal, and the statement that "There’s a big difference between 'prairie' Jews and coastal Jews," (a big difference they don't define), they go on to jab the Big Lebowski fans who participate in Lebowskifests in bowling alleys across the country:

"Maybe [A Serious Man] will become a cult film…" Ethan says, and Joel finishes the thought: "…and then they’ll start holding conventions."

"'Gopnikfest' has a nice ring to it, I think," his brother muses.

"They could have them in Vegas, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv…" Joel continues.

"…and you’d drink Manischewitz every time a character says 'Meshbesher,'" Ethan adds, referring to the film's oft-mentioned unseen lawyer.

Other useful information: Joel calls his wife Frances McDormand "Frannie" (??!!).

A reporter for the Canadian press asked them if they considered themselves serious men, and Ethan replied, "I don't think either of us would. I don't know. It's just, you know, the weakness for fart jokes and the like."

A Serious Man has zero big stars in it, which after the superstar megacast of Burn After Reading should make for a less distracting, undiluted Coen experience. Sort of like Blood Simple.

The Times has done two features about A Serious Man lately, neither of them reviews. One from a week or so ago is structured like an interview with the filmmakers, though since they offer so little in the way of insightful comments, ends up being a musing about the Jewishness of this movie and other Coen Brothers movies. The brothers do report that their professor father ate bacon in his Welsh rarebit at the campus restaurant, and that they used to sneak ham at their neighbor's house. They seem to acknowledge that this movie is in part about what it means to be Jewish (it includes a disclaimer: "No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture") but they brush off speculation that other movies like Miller's Crossing make any kind of Jewish statement, or as is sometimes speculated, anti-Jewish statement.

The Coens obviously aren't anti-Jewish, but they clearly take pleasure in the suffering and misery of their lead characters. "For us," Ethan said, "the fun was inventing new ways to torment Larry."

Then today A.O. Scott came out with a feature on Jewishness in recent movies, which is really great. He looks at Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in Funny People and everybody in A Serious Man, and notices the two movies could have traded titles. And he has to bring up Inglourious Basterds: "now even the Holocaust has become a safe subject for pure entertainment."

Both Times features begin with Jewish jokes, but A.O. Scott's is better, and it sounds like it could be the opening quote of the movie: "'Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?' my grandfather — an atheist, a socialist and a righteous man in the best Biblical sense — used to ask. 'Why not?'"

UPDATE: A.O. Scott wrote one of the best reviews he's ever written for A Serious Man, and also has really smart things to say about the Coens' movies in general. Good stuff.

September 21, 2009

Hey, Jennifer's Body is actually good!

Jennifer's Body

Maybe this is some kind of delayed backlash to the Diablo Cody backlash, but I'm going to say it: Jennifer's Body is a better movie than Juno. It's also an unapologetic teen horror movie, so I probably like it in part because I love teen horror movies, and I'm ambivalent about twee little indie movies about meaningful teen issues with a hideously grating soundtrack.

There's a robust tradition of horror movies with gutsy heroines kicking ass (The Final Girl, etc) but this is the first one I've seen that is of, by, for, and about girls. With every boy she devours, Jennifer is really trying to provoke her best friend Needy's attention, jealousy, love, and loyalty--she's the twisted friend who shows her devotion to you by randomly making out with you, then hitting on your boyfriend.

You could read the movie as: a metaphor for combustible female teenage sexuality and sexual power; a revenge fantasy about killing men who exploit teenage girls and turn them into literal and figurative monsters; a story about how best friends navigate their friendships when they start getting into boys; a thoughtful analysis of our cultural obsession with Megan Fox; and a big middle finger to our cultural obsession with Megan Fox.

And while all these layers are going on, it's still a really fun horror movie about an occult ritual gone wrong, and the resulting demon-babe with an insatiable appetite for boy guts. With a decent soundtrack!

While I was watching the movie and thinking about how it's all about the Megan Fox media saturation we live in, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh casting Sasha Grey to play an expensive prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience, which was about buying and selling the fantasies that we create about people. By casting Sasha Grey, he made an interesting statement about audiences wanting to believe in the characters we watch in movies, even though we know they're really actors playing roles. It was a great idea, but the downside was that Sasha Grey played her character with such flat affectlessness than it was impossible to care very much about her or anything she did. You could argue that Soderbergh isn't interested in audiences caring about his characters and just wants to make experimental movies about the roles people play in society or something like that, but a lead actor that failed to bring any life at all to her character made for an empty-feeling movie. That I still liked. I can't help myself, Soderbergh!

Megan Fox can act rings around Sasha Grey. Megan Fox knows how to play a man-eating sexpot, because she does it in every one of her movies, magazine interviews, TV appearances, and in the thousands of red carpet and publicity shots we've all seen of her. Casting Megan Fox as a sexy demon in a Diablo Cody horror movie is stunt-casting in the same way that casting Sasha Grey to play an expensive hooker is stunt-casting, but this time it worked. Our friend Emily once said that Megan Fox is the most unmediated celebrity in the world--she's famous for appearing sexy, dangerous, and unhinged in interviews. She's unpredictable, and maybe a little nuts. Her recent Rolling Stone interview about cutting herself and her own insecurity sounds like it was created specifically for Jennifer's Body marketing.

In the press, there's Megan Fox, the a gorgeous sexual dynamo who exists to fuel boys' fantasies about her so people will go see her movies. In the movie, there's Megan Fox, the gorgeous sexual devil who exists to fuel boys' fantasies about her so she can feed on their flesh. It's beautiful.

Vulture claims that critics are anti-Jennifer's Body, but I disagree. A.O. Scott wrote a glowing review, and especially likes the movie's treacherous world of female friendship, and Dana Stevens from Slate says whatever you expect of this movie based on what you think about Diablo Cody, you're wrong.

Also, she won't get enough attention for this movie, but I loved Amanda Seyfried as Needy, the best friend heroine. Jennifer's the hot one that all the boys want, but Needy has the world's sweetest boyfriend, a supportive mom (Amy Sedaris!), and a healthy dose of self-respect. I loved the image of Needy tearing across a field in her gigantic poofy hot pink princess prom dress and fluffy blonde hairdo to save her boyfriend and kill the demon. I was glad that director Karyn Kusama (who also did Girlfight) could make a formidable heroine who doesn't need boxing gloves to be tough.

September 17, 2009

Store Fronts

Phil's Stationery

Yesterday I was out looking to buy some airmail stationery, which if you're like me, is something you haven't thought about since the time in your life when friends were studying abroad in college and you hadn't quite started using email as the sole means of communication with everyone you know. These days it's not so easy to find.

So I went into Phil's Stationery on East 47th, right smack in the middle of midtown and standing between a Chinese noodle shop and a nail salon, offering office supplies and "Zerox copies", according to the sign. It looks like the kind of place that would have functional, cheap, non-wedding-invitation-oriented stationery that hardly anyone has been interested in buying for at least ten years.

They did! The employee who helped me walked past a small display of day planners and toner cartridges and randomly piled stacks of paper, dug around among the dusty boxes, then rummaged through a huge, falling-over pile of stuff on a back shelf. He pulled out a crumpled pad of airmail stationery with the price $1.89 printed right on the front sheet, and a package of airmail envelopes (the kind with a red and blue pattern along the edges) that had already been opened and half used and was yellowing with age. An unseen manager in the basement shouted back and forth with the employee through an old dumbwaiter shaft that opened onto the sales floor, and they decided on a price of $1.50. "Perfect!," I said, and bought both from a seriously elderly woman with an impressively thick (Polish?) accent.

The whole process reminded me of a great exhibit I saw the other day at the Clic Gallery on Centre Street in Soho. The exhibit is a collection of photographs by James and Karla Murray called "Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York", and features lots of oldtime store fronts from all over the city for bakeries, discount stores, record stores, diners, and barber shops, all from before the era of printed awnings that identify most street-level businesses today. There are lots of places I see all the time in there, like the Film Center Cafe, Smith's Bar & Restaurant, and Clover Delicatessen, and some that are dearly missed, like McHale's. The show is up through this weekend, and there's a book available.

The artists mention in the intro of the book that almost 1/3 of the stores have closed since they photographed them. I'd be surprised if Phil's is still hanging on this time next year.

September 13, 2009

Remakes and non-resurrections

St Etienne's Fox Base Beta

Some bits of news from the last few days:

August 26, 2009

RIP Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne, the man who knew everybody, went everywhere, and did everything, all while looking like a million bucks, died today.

Most recently he was a columnist for Vanity Fair, focusing on celebrities and the crimes and scandals that bring them down. He also covered all the major celebrity murder trials, got sued by Gary Condit, and crusaded for victims' rights, and that was all after a long career in TV and movie producing.

Vanity Fair has an obituary, a letter from Graydon Carter about his amazing career and what it was like to know him, and a retrospective of his career in pictures. There are great ones of Dunne with a young Elizabeth Taylor, with his pal Princess Di, hanging around at parties attended by Claus von Bulow, and my favorite, sitting near a surprised O.J. at his recent criminal trial, wearing a huge smile:

Dominick Dunne and OJ

During a brief conversation they had during the trial, he said he started to like O.J., but no one was happier about that conviction than old Dominick Dunne.

Here's the last article he wrote for Vanity Fair, "What a Swell Party He Wrote", which is just incredibly great. Here's an archive of his other VF columns. ADM once declared on this site that Dominick Dunne is a national treasure. Sure was.

August 21, 2009

"Let's get one of Bambi holding the gun"

waitress with a rifle

  • Some cops in Midland, TX got in trouble for taking this week's best picture, above. Someone called the cops after seeing this young waitress holding a big rifle and hanging out in the parking lot outside a restaurant. When they arrived, it turned out the guys she was hanging out with were other cops, who had been in the restaurant when they invited the waitress out for a little photo shoot. Her name tag, The Smoking Gun points out, reads "Bambi". I love that she still has on her apron with straws and pens in it.
  • New study: "the typical adult video game player is overweight, introverted and may be a little bit depressed."
  • Tuesday night's wild storm knocked down 500 trees in Manhattan.
  • A lot of the big movie star vehicles this year haven't done so well, and studios are trying to compensate, in part by paying stars less. Land of the Lost, Pelham 1 2 3, Duplicity, Funny People all had big stars and did worse than expected. The movies that did well are Harry Potter, Transformers, and Up, none of which were really popular because of their stars.

    And don't forget about that relatively small budget South African movie with zero stars where half the dialogue is subtitled. District 9 was mostly pretty good (except for some terrible dialogue toward the end,) but what I especially like about it is that studios will notice, again, that when a movie is well made (and well marketed) it doesn't need a huge budget, a famous director, big actors, or a dumb plot that's spoon-fed to the audience to make money. I love when people turn out for good, atypical movies and make them hits.

August 4, 2009

More movie news, other news

Coffee and Cigarettes

A few links for today:

  • A new study shows that people have a lot less self-control than they think they do, and people who think they're good at resisting temptation are actually terrible at it. One of the tests involved college student smokers watching Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (which features Iggy and Tom, above) while holding an unlit cigarette in their hand or, for the hardcore delusional people, in their mouths. Three times more students who thought they had unbreakable self-control smoked during the movie than the other students.

    The lesson: you are helpless to resist that donut/cigarette/drink/cute flirt, so who do you think you're kidding? As Wilde said, the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

  • Latest cast addition to Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch: Carla Gugino. If this movie isn't fantastic I'm going to cry.
  • Review copies of G.I. Joe aren't going to be released, which is usually a bad sign. But really, what have they got to lose? Transformers 2 showed that fans don't care what critics say anyway, so why put what's probably a pretty disappointing movie out there to get bad reviews? One reviewer who has seen it called it "a big, silly, pulpy, cartoony action film." Yeah, no kidding.
  • Some statisticians who think language used in song lyrics and on blogs indicate our national mood found that teen blogs use "an abundance of 'sick,' 'hate' and 'stupid.' "
  • Michiko Kakutani weighs in not so positively on Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, which sounds like an intentionally breezy read: "it feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself."

July 23, 2009

Stepping in for the Linky

Tony Hsieh at Zappos

Since the Robot Linky on the right has been down for a while now (system problems, hopefully resolved soon) I thought I'd put some interesting links up here through the day.

  • Amazon is acquiring Zappos. Nice move, as long as they keep everything exactly the same: Zappos is everything you could want in online shopping. The head, Tony Hsieh (above) will still be in charge.
  • Times has a good article on the young woman with a $23,148,855,308,184,500 negative balance on her Visa debit card this month. 12,000 other customers had similar crazy charges that rivaled the gross world product.
  • Manhattanites respond to news that they live in the state's thinnest county. The Times interviews representatives of the borough's "disparate subcultures of the skinny," (i.e. if you're well-off, you're probably thin) with everyone's height and weight included. Pretty fascinating, especially that 42% of the Manhattan population being overweight or obese now means that we're "skinny". All relative, I guess.
  • Maybe the Cambridge cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. can claim that he's not racist just because he investigated a break-in call, but he cannot claim he's not racist because he once performed mouth-to-mouth on a black Celtic, in 1993.
  • It's now legal in Tennessee and Arizona (and 14 other states) to bring your concealed gun into a bar, though you're not supposed to drink if you're armed. Bar owners are complaining that they'll be responsible for refusing to serve "designated shooters." Times article includes a clip from Colbert.

July 20, 2009

TUSH 2009, a late bloomer

I Gotta Feeling

Now that everyone's become an expert on the phenomenon of the song of the summer, there have been predictions about the Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit on every pop culture website you read. Vulture at New York Mag has owned the debate this year, with a weekly post ranking contenders that I guess will keep plugging along until everybody gets their hands on advance copies of The Blueprint 3 and loses interest in disposable pop.

I've been waiting to see if any TUSH was going to emerge from underneath the Lady Gaga juggernaut of year-old songs that are still cluttering up the charts. Then the Michael Jackson shockwave hit, which has kept the record industry afloat for at least another couple of months. The sales story of the year belongs to MJ. Check out this Billboard chart of album sales--he owns it, and probably will for months to come.

So if I was going to declare the 2009 TUSH to be the one song that I've heard more than any other for the last month, it would be "Billie Jean". Obviously. That's the ubiquitous song (Sasha Frere-Jones claims this year's summer jam is defined by Michael Jackson's death, but doesn't say which song.) But in the long term, "Billie Jean" doesn't belong to this year. You won't associate it with the places where you heard that song over and over again this summer, because it will always take you back to the 80's. So I'm going to stick to the spirit of the TUSH and pick a new song that isn't popular only because of a sad death and the resulting media hyperventilation.

It was looking like this year's TUSH would be some Lady Gaga song. She is everywhere -- still -- and it has been suggested that her persona might be a creation of Sacha Baron Cohen. But her album came out last fall, even if it didn't really take off until this spring. "LoveGame" [video] could be a TUSH contender--it's irresistibly catchy and has the best vocal hook of the year, and any song whose beat is self-described as "sick" I am automatically going to love. But by now it's too old and it's not sunny enough to capture the feel of a summer hit.

Then came the Black Eyed Peas. Their new album The E.N.D. was released in early June, and shortly after its release they had the #1 and #2 songs on the charts, something that no one's done since OutKast in 2004. Here's this week's chart.

Their first single was "Boom Boom Pow" [video]. I don't like it. Doesn't go anywhere and isn't actually that fun.

But the song that was born to be a TUSH is their most recent single, "I Gotta Feeling". This is the song that all of a sudden I hear everywhere. It's on the radio when I set the alarm at night, it's on the radio when the alarm goes off in the morning, it's in the Indian fast food place on West 48th, at the gym, everywhere. It didn't come out until the end of June, but already sounds like it's been around forever. It was produced by French electro-dancepop producer David Guetta.

Plus the admittedly ridiculous video is pretty great--the band goes to a wild house party which is like a condensed version of every 80's teen movie party montage you've ever seen. Everyone's jumping on the bed and spraying beer all over everything and making out with each other and jumping in the pool, except, hey, look! There's waving a red cup around! There's dancing on the kitchen counter! There's a girl spilling cookies onto the floor as she takes them out of the oven! Because this is the kind of party where people bake! It's fun, goofy, disposable.

Also: "I Gotta Feeling" gets the award for best use of Yiddish in a pop song: "Fill my cup! (Drank) / Mazel tov! (L'Chaim!)"

As a tribute to better BEP, here's the video for "Fallin' Up" from their first album. This song has a verse about how they'll never sell out. Ahem.

July 15, 2009

Pomo Sotomayor

Sotomayor hearings

I sure wish I could listen to my college Postmodern Lit professor talk about these Sotomayor hearings.

Please excuse this diversion into shoddy undergrad English-major analysis, but has anyone else noticed the weird refusal to acknowledge that a justice's gender or ethnicity could play a role on the Supreme Court, unless that justice is not male or not white? The kerfuffle over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment has gone further than subtly racist partisan pouncing on whatever makes her nomination questionable, and has moved into a strange realm where we all pretend that subjectivity doesn't exist.

When you're a judge, your job is to interpret the law with impartiality and not let your personal viewpoints color your judgment. The law is the law and we as individuals are supposed to fade into an undifferentiated mass of equality and non-discriminatory humanoids before it.

But come on. Even if we all agree that the law should strive for perfect objectivity based on a higher, absolute justice, we all know that's not ever going to be possible. Don't members of Congress know any basic postmodern critical theory?

I'm only half kidding, here. The pomo critics taught us that all the basic tenets that our society is built on--science, religion, the nuclear family, political parties, gender roles, law--are all human constructions that we made up. They don't possess any kind of innate righteousness. The only reason we have the law is that we made it up, if by "we" you mean "white men".

(The postmodernists also say that just like there's no real objective truth, there's also no subjective truth either because the idea of "selfhood" is just another construction, but then you're getting into sophomore-level cultural studies, and I didn't take that class. Here's a pretty good summary of all this stuff.)

I don't expect that we would find much Derrida on Jeff Session's nightstand, but it would be so great if someone in these hearings spoke up and pointed out that if Sotomayor has personal beliefs based on her life experiences that could have some kind of influence on her work as an interpreter of the law, then John Roberts and Clarence Thomas and Scalia and Ginsberg all do too. As justices their job is to strive to see beyond their personal beliefs, though they are still there. Sotomayor spoke about her life experiences as being positive contributions to her legal career, but every judge's experiences somehow influence the way they do their work. How could they not?

We only seem to notice or be suspicious of this when a person other than a white man talks about it, because we have a legal system that was created by white men, and has therefore historically directed more benefits to them than to anyone else. During his congressional hearing, Justice Roberts didn't have to talk about how a wise white guy might add value to a court of law because our courts are already pretty much of, by, and for white guys. Those biases are already there.

At least Sotomayor has admitted this, though now she seems to be backpedaling, playing the objectivity game with Congress. Still, I love that she said this: "Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying."

Today, John Cornyn went back to the wise Latina thing again, "asking whether she would regret if her audience of students understood her to be saying that the quality of a judge depended on race, gender or ethnicity." "I would regret that," she said.

I would love to hear John Roberts laboriously explain over and over again how he has explored his own feelings and biases as a white man, then put them aside for the fair application of the law.

July 13, 2009

Not the business you'd expect to be booming

Redbox video

You know those video rental kiosk box things you see every so often inside a Circle K or a ShopRite? And you probably think: Huh? Now that Kim's Video is gone, your local video store has started offering two-for-one Monday through Thursday out of sheer desperation, and even your parents do Netflix, someone had the bright idea of opening a line of DVD vending machines?

But Redbox, the company that runs those machines, is doing pretty well and is actually growing--15,000 locations, and 7.5 million rentals every week. Not too bad compared to Netflix's 10 million per week.

The Times did a feature on Redbox that suggests some advantages the company has going for it, which also tell you a thing or two about the kind of customer they likely have. Rentals go for only $1 a day, you don't have to use a computer or create an account to rent, and when you're already at a McDonald's and see Taken or Meatballs through the kiosk window (they've got 'em) that's an impulse rental that a lot of people are very ready to make.

The main reason that I still use my local video store (other than the fact that its collection is exceptionally good) is that when I want to watch The Bourne Identity or Rock 'n' Roll High School, I usually want to watch them right now. Sure, if I decide I need to catch up on all the French new wave stuff I didn't see in college or make my way through everything Barbara Stanwyck ever did, I'm happy to wait for a Netflix delivery. But on those rare occasions when you need to watch Almost Famous and it's not airing on VH1 or streaming on Netflix, you need a fail-safe option for immediate viewing.

The Redbox selection is, of course, not remotely comparable to the Netflix selection, with each kiosk only stocking about 200 titles, but even this could be pitched as a selling point. The president of the company, who worked at Netflix for 6 years before defecting, says the typical Redbox customer "doesn't want to wade through titles they won't be interested in." Their top rental title ever is Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Netflix's top title is Crash.

In other words, for the Redbox customer, you can keep your precious non-linear social commentary on race and class that you add to your schmancy online queue. I'll pick up Step Brothers and Starship Troopers along with some Crunch 'n Munch at Walgreens.

There are more and more ways to get access to movies, and increasingly they don't involve leaving your home. So it's interesting that people are still willing to go out into the world to pick up a physical disc, as long as it's easy, really cheap, and they can do it while they're somewhere they have to go anyway.

So good for you, Redbox and your $1 rentals. I looked up my closest kiosk location on the website (on the "Find a Redbox" page that uses, of course!, Mapquest) so I'm heading there tomorrow to get a hyper-affordable mainstream DVD and wage some movie rental class warfare.

UPDATE: So I went to my local Redbox machine in a Walgreen's, scrolled around the movies they had, and ended up abandoning my mainstream vision by renting I've Loved You So Long, that French movie from last year with Kristen Scott Thomas. This movie might not be in the highest demand for Redbox customers, but it was great. And $1.08, including tax!

I may not go out of my way to rent from Redbox, but the interface is super easy and intuitive and the whole rental process took less than 3 minutes (in part because they don't have all that many movies to scroll through.) For times when you want to see a particular movie and want to be watching the opening credits in less than 15 minutes, it's a good option.

July 8, 2009

Public Enemies: maybe I expected too much?

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

The movie I've been most looking forward to all summer is Michael Mann's Public Enemies. I love some of Mann's movies (especially The Insider, Manhunter and most of Collateral), I love Johnny Depp, and I'm a sucker for period gangster movies that involve slick suits, big guns, and smoky nightclubs.

Maybe my expectations were too high. I was completely prepared to love Public Enemies, but I didn't.

The good things about it:

  • If the movie had any overarching theme, it's how our society constructs crime. John Dillinger knew how to turn on the charm and use the media to make the public love him, even though he was a thief and a murderer. J. Edgar Hoover also uses pop culture to launch his War on Crime, showing "America's Most Wanted"-style reels at movie theaters about "public enemy number one" like a sort of 1930's reality show. Hoover's methods may have backfired, since spotlighting Dillinger made him even more of a celebrity and a folk hero, but it's interesting to see the moment when law enforcement turned real-life crime into entertainment.

  • The contrast between Dillinger the man and Dillinger the pop icon. I love the scene of John Dillinger in a movie theater, watching the reel about himself. He watches, sort of detached and bemused, with only a moment of anxiety as the audience is instructed to "look to your right; look to your left", but of course, nobody notices him. John Dillinger is just an unsophisticated farm boy who's good with a machine gun; Dillinger the public enemy is practically a movie star.

  • The overlap between Johnny Depp and John Dillinger. In one of the only moments of exposition in the whole movie, Dillinger declares that he likes "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you", speaking to a pretty girl he just met. He's a man of action who isn't interested in image, even though his image is what makes him who he is. You could say the same things about Johnny Depp, judging from the recent Vanity Fair feature where he carouses around with his buds, drinking and enjoying being Johnny Depp, yet has no interest in watching his own movies.

  • The scene where a mob middle-manager (played by John Ortiz, who was in "The Job") tells Dillinger that they will no longer associate with him, launder his money, give him guns, or let him use their safe houses, because he's "bad for business." The mob was pulling down a lot more cash through their gambling ring than Dillinger was stealing from banks, but the feds were only interested in Dillinger, because he made a better celebrity-criminal. This one scene says more about perceptions about what kind of crime matters in this country than anything else in the movie, and I wish they did more with it.

  • Marion Cotillard telling an abusive cop, "When my Johnny finds out how you slapped around his girl, you know what's going to happen to you, fat boy?"

But overall, the movie felt surfacy and meaningless. It's fine to drop in on the action with no exposition: we can figure out who these characters are as we go along. But it's like there was nothing to figure out. I never felt like I understood what John Dillinger was all about, except that he was good at robbing banks, and I have no clue what the members of his gang were like. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see some stuff about the relationships between Dillinger and his gang, the people at the safe houses, and the madam he was friends with? It would have been, but we hardly got any of it.

The gritty look of the HD video was fine and made sense, but using hammy dialogue straight out of a 40's gangster movie totally didn't fit with the look. The acting was cold and flat, which is fine for a movie that doesn't glamorize its characters, but then it's almost impossible to care when those characters get arrested or killed. There are no cheesy biopic cliches, but there also isn't any character development, emotion, or suspense. As Roger Ebert says in his (positive) review: "His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not."

I'm surprised that I these characters were so uninteresting, because Michael Mann knows how to get you to care about his characters. Think about The Insider: Russell Crowe is brave, but he's thorny and unfriendly, not especially likable. But we really care about what happens to him and want to see where the movie goes. We already know what happens to Dillinger, so we need something else besides the plot to feel invested in him, and I don't think we got it.

My favorite review is David Edelstein's in NY Magazine. He suggests that the best rejoinder for Public Enemies is the Michael Jackson video for "Smooth Criminal":

It's a tommy-gun gangster fantasia with a touch of Guys and Dolls, and it's everything Public Enemies isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. The video reminds you why the gangster has become an existential hero in pop culture: It’s how he seizes the space. On some level Michael Mann knows that, but he's paralyzed by his pretentions and specious morality. And he can't dance.

Here's the long version and the short version of the MJ video. Not really a fair comparison, but the video is a lot more fun than the movie.

June 18, 2009

TV theme songs

Mary Tyler Moore opening sequence hat throw

Today's Daily News has a long analysis of the evolution of TV show theme songs. It doesn't seem to be related to anything, but it's pretty good anyway. It starts out with the idea that you can identify someone's generation by which theme songs they know all the words to: "Gilligan's Island" represents one generation, "Brady Bunch" is another, and "Greatest American Hero" is another. Of course, anyone who's in my generation knows all three because of the Golden Age of Afternoon Reruns in the early to mid-80's.

Anyway, the point of the article is that with so many shows on all the network and cable channels, audiences don't have the time or the brain capacity to get to know and love theme songs they way they used to, and many shows have almost completely gotten rid of theme music all together. Think of those 3 seconds of abstract whooshing that seems to be the theme music for "Lost".

There's a long tradition of theme songs that set up the premise of a show and characterized the storyline that extends into recent years. The theme song for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" [video] about how Mary's gonna make it after all sets the stage for the show in much the same way that They Might Be Giants' "Boss of Me" did for "Malcolm in the Middle" [audio], and that ran until 2006.

Today's producers seem to be less secure about holding viewers, so they cut the long theme song to get straight to the action: "Now that most of us have dozens or hundreds of channels to surf through, and a remote to do it with, the networks are terrified that the minute one show ends, we will start looking around ... The idea is that we shouldn't have time to even think about picking up the remote before we're seeing action from the next show."

Maybe that's why cable networks are comfortable with longer opening sequences with theme songs than networks are, so we get "The Sopranos" [video] and "Weeds" [video] with one and a half minute intros, and on the networks we have a few quick bleeps to introduce "24".

So I'll share a few of my favorite theme songs and TV theme music. Please add any other stellar examples or personal favorites in the comments. (Click on the show names to hear the theme music.)

Miami Vice: My entire family used to be whipped into a frenzy of excitement every Friday night when that Jan Hammer music came on.
Mad Men: That moody, jazzy theme song with the hesitant descending strings somehow captures everything you need to know about the show.
The Jeffersons: I know. It's obvious, it's predictable, it's fantastic. It's by Ja'net Dubois.
Fame: Maybe I'm being influenced by the trailer for the new movie, but the original was really great.
Law & Order: Both the succinct "Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound" and the funky shuffle of the original show's theme music.
The X-Files: Abstract and spooky, maybe most popular ambient TV theme song ever?

The site Television Tunes seems to have every theme song ever--over 11,000.

May 20, 2009

Vampire lady smackdown

Charlaine Harris in her officeStephenie Meyer

The Times has a great feature today on Charlaine Harris, the middle-aged southern lady who writes the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels that has become the basis for HBO's True Blood series, the show about dirty, sexy, campy vampires that stars Anna Paquin. This lady has got it going on.

I'm coming in really late in the game, here. I've never read any of her books, and I haven't seen True Blood. I also haven't read any of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, or seen the movie that came out a few months ago. My opinion is based solely on this one article and the press about the books and tv/movie adaptations. But next time I'm taking a really long flight or recovering from dental surgery and need a vampire soap opera potboiler, I'm picking up Sookie Stackhouse.

Both Sookie and the Twilight series have been wildly popular. The latest Sookie novel, Dead and Gone, came out last week and debuted at number one. Twilight has sold one hundred billion copies (actually 42 million) and preteens everywhere went completely mental for the movie.

But from what I can tell, Sookie has it all over Bella Swan and the Twilight crew. She's a waitress in a rural Louisiana bar, she's kind of trashy, she can read minds, and she likes to have freaky swamp sex with vampires. The TV show itself sounds like it unfortunately abandoned its pulpy roots to devolve into a misguided metaphor for identity politics. I love this quote from Slate's review: "its ideas (about race, gender, sexual orientation, what have you) simmer on the artsy-fartsy backburner while blood and lust boil away in the low-culture pot up front." The opening credits are good and nasty.

Meanwhile, Twilight's main character, Bella Swan, looks wan and ineffectual, and her relationship with her vampire boyfriend involves a lot of pained chastity. I like Kristen Stewart in Panic Room and Adventureland, so I hope she doesn't get trapped playing bad gothy damsel in distress roles in this series for too long. A few months ago Stephen King said in an interview that Stephenie Meyer "can't write worth a damn."

Here are a few good bits from the Times article on Charlaine Harris. In addition to the latest one, she's also written 25 other books, including an earlier series about a librarian-turned-sleuth, and another "more violent and sexually explicit storyline" about a cleaning lady who investigates murders.

"It was just a huge relief that I finally hit on the right character and the right publisher," said Ms. Harris. Or, as she put it more succinctly, with a cackle that evoked a paranormal creature: "I had this real neener-neener-neener moment."

She had always wanted to write about vampires. From the outset, she wanted to set the story in the prosaic trailer-park and strip-mall landscape of northern Louisiana, to distinguish it from the gothic opulence of Anne Rice’s New Orleans.

Driving last week along a tree-lined country road dotted by an occasional horse farm or a row of abandoned chicken coops, Ms. Harris said it was how she imagined the road to Sookie’s house. Ideas for characters come from all over the place. "Every trip to Wal-Mart is an inspiration," she said.

I already love her.

April 23, 2009

Dieting for dudes

Skinny Bastards

The ladies who brought us Skinny Bitch are coming out with a version for the fellas, which is titled Skinny Bastard.

The original book for women was marketed as a dieting book, but turned out to be a well-reasoned argument for becoming vegan. Some angry would-be skinny bitches did not want to hear about animal cruelty in their dieting books, but it still sold 1.1 million copies.

The publishing company admits that they expect mostly women to buy Skinny Bastard on behalf of their menfolk. An article in the Times quotes the new, guy-oriented introduction: "Chances are, you haven't done so badly, despite the few extra lbs you're carting around ... But don't kid yourself, pal: A hot-bodied man is a head-turner."

But come on, what kind of man is going to buy a book called Skinny Bastard? The subtitle is pretty good: "A Kick-In-The-Ass For Real Men Who Want to Stop Being Fat and Start Getting Buff", but the title is terrible. There are loads of women out there who would love it if people called them "skinny bitch" behind their backs. And there's definitely a segment of men who would be into the "bitch" part, but how many men aspire to be called "skinny"?

So let's think of some better titles that might interest that special population of men who buy dieting books. A few thoughts:

Fit Jerk
Stud Asshole
Tight-Ab Prick
Sculpted Moron
Pumped Dick
Ripped Fuckface
Beefy Jackass

Wouldn't you rather buy those titles? Browse the Men's Health site for a few minutes, I swear this is totally what guys want.

April 16, 2009


Puppetry of the Penis auditions

Reuters gets into some pantless photojournalism today at the auditions for a show called Puppetry of the Penis, which they generously describe as "performance art" in the captions.

Here's the slideshow. None of these shots would necessarily get you fired from work for looking at them, but they might encourage you to test out genital elasticity in ways you're not comfortable exploring.

My favorite:

Puppetry of the Penis auditions

Puppetry of the Penis is a show that originated in Australia (surprise!) as guy performing a collection of dick stunts (or "genital origami") on stage. It ran in New York for a while back in 2002, and was either very hilarious or very horrifying, depending on how you feel about a penis contortion trick called "weed-snipper". It's going to be at Comix on 14th Street next Wednesday, and the producers auditioned some new members for the show earlier this week.

A lone woman showed up thinking it was an audition for an actual puppet show for puppeteers who work with puppets that aren't their dicks.

April 10, 2009

Recession roundup

Abolish Money photo

[from NY Times Picturing the Recession series]

Here's a brief list of things people are doing right now as a result of the recession, besides the usual cutting back on expenses and getting canned:

March 17, 2009

Another holiday for non-New Yorkers

Leprechauns in Times Square

I experienced St. Patrick's Day a little more intimately than usual this year because my office is now located right in the eye of the parade storm. While walking around on 48th St and watching crowds of people celebrating the aspects of Irish culture that involve drinking in public before 10am, I realized that some of the most popular and well-known events that happen in New York City are attended almost exclusively by people who do not live in New York City.

There's New Year's Eve in Times Square, the tree lighting in Rockefeller Center, and the St. Patrick's Day parade down 5th Avenue. Today's parade is probably the least disruptive of the three--at least I can more or less continue my regular life while it's going on, and it has its charms, like the clusters of old guys standing around in kilts drinking beer and smoking cigars while sets of bagpipes are strapped to their torsos.

But mostly it's a bunch of drunk kids in "Who's Your Paddy?" t-shirts. Here are a few photos:

Girls on 5th Ave wearing said t-shirts

Girls at St Patrick's Day parade

Marching band in headdresses

Men in a marching band at St Patrick's Day parade

Dudes ignoring the parade to hang out near the port-a-potties instead

drinking on the street at St Patrick's Day parade

Hasidic man doing his best to ignore everything

Hasidic guy at St Patrick's Day parade

Deli that put a more direct message on its sidewalk sign than its usual list of breakfast specials

Beer sign at St Patrick's Day parade

After the parade was over, the crowds around Rockefeller Center thinned out. Because everyone had moved to the other part of New York that out-of-towners love, Times Square!

Irish pot leaf hat on 47th St

Green hat at St Patrick's Day parade

All 7 or 8 of the Irish bars I passed in Hell's Kitchen were packed, especially those with signs out front declaring they were "St. Patrick's Day Party Headquarters", sponsored by Heineken.

Which says everything you need to know about St. Patrick's Day in New York. Heineken: Yeah, it's Dutch, but it's close enough because the bottle is green.

February 23, 2009

Oscar hates America

Sean and Hugo

While we await an on-the-spot report, it's worth pointing out that the US did not fare well in the Oscars. There was an Australian host, almost all of the major categories were dominated by Europeans and Asians, and the only American winners in big categories were a gay screenwriter and notorious Anti-American Sean Penn. I guess Hollywood liberals really do hate America.

Update: As far as I'm concerned Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black are as American as apple pie and Mickey Rourke, but they are somewhat more marginalized than say, Meryl Streep.

February 19, 2009

No Tonya Hardings in competitive yoga

International Yoga Asana Championship

I bet you thought about Neal Pollack a lot more 5 years ago than you do these days. But he's still out there: he had an article on Slate a few days ago about the International Yoga Asana Championship that happened in LA earlier this month. (He's also writing a book about the "weird and circuslike" world of yoga culture.)

In the article, a lot of competitive yogis talk about how strange people think it is to practice yoga like a sport, and the charismatic leader of the competitive yoga circuit, Bikram Choudhury, says wonderful things like, "I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me."

Anyway, to counter the impression that competitive yogis are a bunch of aggressive cutthroats who stomp each other's chakras on their way to the top, the U.S. women's champion says, "The competition gets a lot of flak from a lot of people, but it's not like anyone's trying to crack anyone else's kneecaps."

This Slate article came out the same day that Tonya Harding, the original kneecapper, appeared on HBO's monthly sports show "Real Sports", and said that she's paid her debts for her involvement with the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan and thinks she's suffered enough. She mentions Barack Obama's derisive namecheck during his campaign [video]. Girl, if people as good-natured and benevolent as Barack Obama and the world's greatest yogi are still bad-mouthing you in public, it's probably not ever going to stop.

Tonya Harding does admit that as long as people like Barack Obama keep dropping her name, she'll keep getting more paid gigs, I guess in her new career as a pro boxer. Just give in already and do a season of "The Surreal Life", you'll be fine.

Here's a video of her catching a big catfish, and asking the HBO interviewer, "How much responsibility do you think I need to take?"

November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

spaghetti carbonara

In honor of our national celebration of face-stuffing, we bring you an excerpt from Calvin Trillin's groundbreaking 1981 essay about his overthrow of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, "Spaghetti Carbonara Day".

I have been campaigning to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed from turkey to spaghetti carbonara.

It does not take much historical research to uncover the fact that nobody knows if the Pilgrims really ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing we know for sure about what the Pilgrims ate is that it couldn't have tasted very good. Even today, well brought-up English girls are taught by their mothers to boil all veggies for at least a month and a half, just in case one of the dinner guests turns up without his teeth. (It is certainly unfair to say that the English lack both a cuisine and a sense of humor: their cooking is a joke in itself.)

It would also not require much digging to discover that Christopher Columbus, the man who may have brought linguine with clam sauce to this continent, was from Genoa, and obviously would have sooner acknowledged that the world was shaped like an isosceles triangle than to have eaten the sort of things that the English Puritans ate. Righting an ancient wrong against Columbus, a great man who certainly did not come all this way only to have a city in Ohio named after him, would be a serious historical contribution. Also, I happen to love spaghetti carbonara.

[At the first Thanksgiving,] The Indians, having had some experience with Pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as "the big Italian fellow." The dish was spaghetti carbonara--made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was "heretically tasty" and "the work of the devil" and "the sort of thing foreigners eat."

The entire essay is available in The Tummy Trilogy.

Spaghetti carbonara doesn't exactly solve the problem that vegetarians face at Thanksgiving, but it's a step in the right direction. Even if your Thanksgiving hosts fail to offer you a tasty plate of spaghetti carbonara, you can feel lucky that you're not a NASA astronaut at the international space station. Here's their dinner:

NASA Thanksgiving dinner

November 19, 2008

Obama baby names, other than Obama

Barack Obama and crowdsurfing baby

[photo of the guy who crowdsurfed his baby over to Obama at a Montana rally]

I've spent some time in upper Manhattan first grade classrooms lately, and noticed more than one little kid with a "NEVAEH" nametag on their bookbag or cubbyhole. The Times reported on the heaven-backwards trend in baby names in 2006, when it was the 70th most popular name for girls, and the Social Security Administration says it's up to 31 as of last year. As a girl's name, that is. Makes me feel bad for the one little boy Nevaeh I met yesterday who ended up on the losing gender of that particular trend.

Right after the election, Chief Baby Name Correspondent Jennifer 8. Lee told us about parents naming their babies after Obama, though DC's little Obama Alhaji Kabineh Kabba seems to be leading the trend--he's already 6 months old.

Obama-loving expectant parents out there don't have to follow the crowd. And there might be a bunch of them soon--Newsweek reports lots of people got busy on election-night (HuffPost describes the phenomenon as "Yes We Did It".)

Those looking to commemorate that special night with a special baby name might follow the lead of P.O.D. singer Sonny Sandoval with his inexplicable backwards baby name and go for Amabo. It means "I will love" in Latin, which sounds sort of hokey and weirdly Biblical, and captures some of the messianic expectations people have for the real Obama these days.

Or how about Kcarab? The K is silent. Unfortunately that sounds like those carob-covered raisins and peanuts my mom used to buy as some cruddy supposedly healthy alternative to chocolate. Gross.

October 29, 2008

Guess what kind of alcoholic beverage this is

USB port wine

Just like French champagne and Neapolitan pizza, the EU protects Portuguese port by requiring that all wines labeled as "port" be from Portugal. Two years ago, the US signed a "wine accord" with the EU, stating that American wineries couldn't label any new wines with geographic names like port, champagne, or chablis.

So one clever winery from California decided to target the segment of the geek market that also likes deliciously heavy fortified wines by naming their new non-Portuguese port USB.

The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the label, after much deliberation. Note the binary code forming the tree, and the USB-symbol roots.

We should make sure no European wineries are marketing their lighter, sweeter, screw-cap wines with American geographical names. Like Boone's Farm.

October 27, 2008

Mad Men gets feminist

Betty at the hairdresser on Mad Men

The last two episodes of Mad Men were great. The second to last one was some of the best TV I've ever seen-- there are some scenes I never want to watch again, but it was still good television. Even though the season finale last night wasn't quite as ambitious or as creatively structured, it was still pretty amazing.

The show's creator Matthew Weiner, has been clear about his feminist aspirations for the show, but in these last two episodes he shows us what he means: the show seems to have become a kind of morality play where the female characters who stand up for themselves are rewarded, and the ones who don't get raped on the floor of their boss's office.

Let's look at the main characters:

Peggy. The show is as much about her as it is about Don Draper, and it's been structured around her experience from the very first episode. She's now the new superstar of the ad agency, and when she asks for her own office, she gets it (and graciously accepts Roger Sterling's comment about how aggressive women are "cute".) In the finale, she tells Pete Campbell the painful truth about giving away his baby, and in doing so appears to get some kind of spiritual absolution, while Pete is left bewildered and destroyed.

Joan. The scene in the second to last episode where Peggy and Joan talk about Peggy's new office and Joan's upcoming marriage was just awesome. For a moment, the all-powerful Joan looks small and weak as she realizes that she has to rely on the accomplishments of her doctor fiance/rapist to give her status, while Peggy has her own accomplishments to be proud of. For once, Joan is respectful of Peggy and not snotty and dismissive.

But the overall feel of the scene was sad. It was as heartbreaking as watching Joan get passed over for the script reading job without putting up a fight. The show seems to have established an especially unforgiving moral structure for women, just like in teen slasher movies, except in Mad Men it's not the slutty girl who gets punished. It's women like Joan who miss opportunities to stand up for themselves.

Betty. Last night's episode belonged to her. It's been frustrating watching her spiral into the depressive funk she's been in for the last few weeks, but finally last night, her refusal to let her philandering husband come home paid off. Don initially goes off to California to screw around, but instead he ends up spiritually cleansed, and remembers how to be respectful to women through his old friend Anna. He comes home to apologize for being such a dick and does some groveling. Betty lets him back in.

Betty's end of the deal with Don isn't exactly a feminist utopia, but she does get to have a night of freedom, be assured by everybody that she can get an abortion if she needs one, fuck a hot stranger in a men's room, and still get her repentant and now fabulously rich husband back. A lot better than moping around and crying on the shoulder of the 8 year-old boy next door.

The Men. Meanwhile, life is not so great for the menfolk. The last few episodes show them grasping desperately, sometimes pathetically, at their slowly dwindling power over the women in their lives. Don is the only one who seems able to readjust himself and come out, maybe, a sort of decent person. The owners of the agency, meanwhile, had to literally sell themselves out in order to accommodate women's demands--Mona, Jane, and Cooper's hilariously bitchy sister.

Next season: Peggy gets a personal assistant/boy toy, and the secretary pool starts a series of consciousness-raising brown-bag lunches about overly restrictive undergarments.

August 19, 2008

NYC: Not like back home

Tourist taking a photo in Times Square

photo by Joe Shlabotnik

Today's Times asks tourists visiting New York from the US and around the world what aspects of the city surprise them the most. I don't know if it's because of how the question was asked, but most tourists took the opportunity to make little subtly bitchy comments about how day to day life in New York seems different from how things are where they're from. Because for many people, especially when they're far from home, "different" means "I hate it".

Actually, there are a few positive comments about the city from visitors, such as Michael McIsaac from London who loves our outstanding unlimited coffee refills, and Rhona Ciolek from California who marveled at our impressively gigantic piles of trashbags on curbs. An enthusiastic Spanish women notes, "There are a lot of men here that are really muscular!" And I completely agree with some valid complaints, like a Swede who points out that our waterfronts are in shambles.

But most things that surprise tourists seem to be things they don't much like. And some of their comments say more about their home countries than anything else.

So here you go: Helpful clues about what life is like in tourists' home countries, as revealed by their complaints:

Comment from a Spanish tourist: "In Spain we drink coffee in little cups."
Translation: Spanish cafes may be stingy.

Comment from a London tourist: "[New Yorkers] will not tolerate bad service."
Translation: British people suffer in silence.

Comment from a German tourist: "In the ladies' toilets you can see people's feet. Where I'm from we have full doors on the bathrooms."
Translation: It may be harder to solicit anonymous sex in public bathrooms in Germany, a la Larry Craig, but it's probably easier to actually have anonymous sex or engage in any other illicit activities.

Comment from a French tourist: "You are always served very quickly here, even in a nice restaurant. Here it's quicker, you don’t have time. In Paris you get a lot of time before your food comes."
Translation: French service is slow. Also, wow: this guy actually found a way to be snotty about New York restaurants having good service.

Comment from a Saudi tourist, looking at the lights of Times Square: "I thought it would be more realistic."
Translation: Saudis have interesting, sort of postmodern ideas about what reality is and what it should look like when it's actually in front of you in three-dimensional space.

August 12, 2008

Little Chinese girls in Olympic lip-sync cuteness scandal

Chinese girls lip syncing Olympic opening ceremony

It turns out that the little pig-tailed Chinese girl who sang "Ode to the Motherland" at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony on Friday was actually lip-syncing [news report with video]. The real singer, Yang Peiyi (on the left), has a better voice, but was deemed "not as cute" as the lip-syncing girl by the Communist Party, which thinks nothing of driving talented but insufficiently cute little girls into bitterness and self-doubt by the age of 7.

"The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression," explained the music director.

Well, Yang Peiyi, join the club. I'm sure this girl with killer pipes and crooked teeth would get a lot of sympathy from American singers who have been through the same thing. Legendary vocalist Martha Wash actually sued C+C Music Factory in 1990 after a skinnier woman, Zelma Davis, lip synced to Martha belting out "Everybody dance now!" in the video for "Gonna Make You Sweat" and during live (or "live") performances. [UPDATE: Zelma says she didn't lip sync live. See below] [you have definitely already seen this video, but here it is]

And here's another one: LeShaun, the rapper who did the sexy female vocals for LL Cool J's "Doin' It" in 1996 [video]. She got upset that she was not asked to appear in that video--a few skinny girls were cast instead, which LL claimed was due to LeShaun's pregnancy at the time, "rather than any other of her physical features", according to her Wikipedia entry. Here's a 1993 video of LeShaun talking about her own videos being censored because of a double standard applied to women perpetrating violence in rap videos.

But both Martha and LeShaun got over it, and both went on to record more songs with the groups that cut them out of videos.

Little Yang Peiyi has a pretty mature attitude about her own experience with getting screwed out of a live performance that was rightfully hers because of her looks. "I’m OK with it," she said in an interview on the state TV network. "My voice was used in the performance. I think that’s enough."

"I love my country and am eternally loyal to the Communist Party," she continued, eyes wide with terror. "Please don't hurt my family."

UPDATE: Zelma Davis herself wrote in with a clarification about her vocals in "Gonna Make You Sweat". She writes:

"For the record, I have never lip-synched to Martha Wash's vocals during live performances.

I've performed "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everbody Dance Now)" on Saturday Night Live, Oprah, Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, hundreds of concerts around the world, and I have never lip-synched to Martha's vocals."

Thanks for setting the record straight, Zelma!

August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes, soul icon

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

Isaac Hayes was unexpectedly killed by a treadmill yesterday, after having some recent health problems. The NY Times obituary says his music "defined the glories and excesses of soul" through his early years as a songwriter and musician at Stax Records in Memphis.

Cushie and I happened to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis a few months ago, and it was one of the best music history experiences of my life. Before he did "Theme from Shaft" and became a celebrity in his own right, Isaac Hayes wrote around 200 songs from the Stax catalog with his partner David Porter, including Sam and Dave's "Hold on, I'm Comin'" and "Soul Man", and played keyboards with Otis Redding , Booker T and the MG's, and pretty much everybody else on Stax as a session musician.

Also in the Stax Museum is Isaac Hayes' car, a blue 1972 Cadillac Eldorado, which was lined with fur, had a bar that popped out of the dashboard, and because he was a man undaunted by the technological limitations of his time, he had a small black and white TV sort of wedged awkwardly into the area below the radio between the two front seats. The car was taken by the IRS in 1977 when Hayes had some financial problems.

In a good VH1 interview from a few years ago he talked about his fearless and distinctive sense of style, which sounds more like a celebrity from this decade with an army of personal stylists on staff than a southern black man starting out in the early 60's:

"I used to go to a place called Lansky Brothers on the corner of Beale and Second and have them make all my clothes. I wore everything, man. I wore orange suits, pink suits, purple suits, chartreuse suits, green suits - it didn't matter. After I saw The Pink Panther with those Nehru collars and stuff, I was the only one wearing those in Memphis.

"A guy sold me a chain necklace and a chain belt to match. I started wearing that onstage, then I switched to wearing tights. I thought if a belly dancer can wear them, then I can wear them too. Eventually a guy named Charles Rubin said, "I'm going to make you a chain vest." I realized, Wait a minute, I'm wearing chains! Chains once represented slavery to a black man in this country. I said, I'm going to turn it around -- these chains are a symbol of strength and power. So I kept wearing them."

Here's a video clip of Isaac Hayes making his dramatic entrance at the Wattstax concert in LA in 1972. Pink tights, black and white fur boots, and gold chains. He is so awesome:

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

Hayes seemed to move effortlessly from one important moment in pop culture to another for his entire life. After helping to create soul music in the 60's and defining himself as a symbol of black pride during the 70's, he moved onto TV and movies in the 80's. He was in Escape From New York, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and showed up on "The A-Team" and "Miami Vice". In the 90's came "South Park" and, of course, Scientology. It would have been only a matter of time before he did a song with Kanye.

Incredibly, Hayes had just finished making a movie called Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson and good old Bernie Mac, who also died this weekend. Hang in there, Samuel L.

LA Times
also has a very lengthy and in-depth obituary. Reports of the number of kids he has varies from "several" in the LA Times to 6 on IMDb to 12 in the NY Times. There's a good, if not very well organized bio on his website.

July 28, 2008

Can rock change the world?


If you watched MTV in August 1989, you probably remember all the news reports about the Moscow Music Peace Festival, or in the words of Sebastian Bach, "Rocknost". The concert, which happened just a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, was the first huge western rock concert in the Soviet Union and represented its unstoppable shift toward democracy and cultural freedom.

Of course, it was a metal concert. The bands included Motley Crue, Cinderella, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, and Skid Row, and showed that the great unifier that spanned the Iron Curtain was big hair and guitar solos. Ironically, the supposed message of the concert was the war on drugs, which wasn't exactly reflected in the bands' behavior. Ozzy says that it was after this concert that he got so drunk that he famously tried to kill his wife, Sharon.

But the legacy of cultural and political change through music remains. A few years ago, Lionel Ritchie did a concert in the newly pro-Western Libya. In an interview, he shared his belief that music can be a more powerful force than diplomacy in mending political differences:

"I have seen it where in many many populations of the world, politics they couldn't agree on, religion they couldn't agree on. You bring a musical artist in, it translates totally into another realm, and I think that what's going to happen now, that by this being the door to open, you're going to see a change in this country, I can almost guarantee it."

Lionel Ritchie is apparently also huge in Iraq: "Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song."

So now Iran, a country in which all Western pop music with lyrics is banned and the government censors Iranian albums before they're released, has agreed to host a concert with Western artists. Who is going to represent freedom and democracy at this pivotal cultural event, our decade's Rocknost?

Chris de Burgh. The man who gave wretched life to a leading contender for the Worst Song Ever, "Lady in Red", will perform later this year at a stadium in Tehran, with an Iranian band. Apparently he's very popular.

Despite this devastating blow to the prospect of mutual understanding between the East and the West, I think the concept still holds promise. While Chris de Burgh is obviously a terrible choice for this Iranian concert, other artists could make some real progress in bridging our differences. Metal is universally and timelessly loved by teens around the world, especially kids who live in an oppressive political environment that's on the verge of a huge cultural shift. Basically, if the US considers a country our enemy, then that nation's kids are the world's biggest metal fans.

Slate has an article today ("Rock the Mullahs") about metal in the Islamic world, featuring videos by hard rock and metal bands from Morocco to Israel to Iran. A new book by political historian and metalhead Mark LeVine, called Heavy Metal Islam, demonstrates that just like Soviet teens in the '80's, the pissed-off kids in Muslim countries who want their world to change are the ones in Mastodon t-shirts:

A member of Iran's most popular metal band, Tarantist, tells LeVine, "Metal is in our blood. It's not entertainment, it's our pain, and also an antidote to the hypocrisy of religion that is injected into all of us from the moment we're born."

One of the patriarchs of Morocco's heavy metal scene, Reda Zine, puts it this way: "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal."

The photo above of a so-called "Muhajababe" is from a good NPR story about LeVine's book and the Middle Eastern metal scene.

Ahmadinejad may welcome Chris de Burgh with open arms, but it sounds like he'd have better ticket sales with Ozzfest. Or go local-- Acrassicauda, Iraq's biggest metal band, is the subject of a new documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad.

July 22, 2008

American food trends: desserts vs. vegetables

Bite-size desserts vs. vegetable garden

dessert photo by pam3la

Local food, it's all the rage. It tastes better and it's better for the environment, so the thinking goes. The Times has an article today on growing demand for locally grown food, which has become so important to overworked rich people that they are having vegetable gardens installed in their urban backyards so that someone else can come over to grow and harvest food for them. Sort of like being a gentleman farmer in San Francisco. Those of more modest means are ordering locally-grown food online to have it delivered to their cubicles.

But even as grocery stores are putting big LOCAL stickers on the milk that has always been locally sourced, the local trend might not have that radical an impact on what regular people buy and eat. Organic food has been widely available for years, but still represents only 3% of total food sales.

Also, the Times reports that a recent survey of chain restaurant and big food company chefs found that locally grown produce is now the second biggest food trend in America.

Number one is bite-size desserts.

Hm. As food trends go, it looks like the Treats Truck is going to crush community supported agriculture every time.

June 26, 2008

Times Square, dirty and Dursty again

Kathleen Durst's missing person poster

Today the Times examines the recreation of 70's era Times Square on W. 38th St, for a movie called All Good Things. The movie is about (or at least "inspired by") the story of Robert Durst (crazy oldest son of the prominent real estate family) and his first wife Kathleen who, along with just about everybody else in Mr. Durst's life, is presumed to have died under very mysterious circumstances.

The movie is directed by Andrew Jarecki, who did the excellent documentary Capturing the Friedmans, another story about a cryptically messed-up family. Kirsten Dunst plays the long-lost and similarly-named Kathleen Durst, who vanished in 1982 after 10 years of marriage to Robert. Ryan Gosling also stars, and I'm guessing/hoping that he plays Durst. If you thought his delusional, tic-y loner in Lars and the Real Girl was a little unnerving, wait till you see him shaving his eyebrows and doing primal scream therapy.

You can read lots more about Robert Durst's epically strange and dangerous life in a very thorough bio. Highlights include Asperger's syndrome, witnessing his mother's suicide, almost certainly killing 3 people and dismembering 1, living as a not-very-convincing woman, and stealing a chicken salad sandwich.

The Times post goes into detail about how much Times Square has changed, and the regret that many New Yorkers feel for the transformation of the gross but thrilling area into a mall.

Earlier: Robert Durst is a free man, getting back into real estate

June 24, 2008

You know you're a '00's kid if...


VH1 started its newest installment of the "I Love The..." series last night with "I Love the New Millennium", a show that looks back fondly on the decade that we're still in.

Message boards on VH1 and IMDb are full of "Are you kidding me?" and "What's next? 'I Love 45 minutes Ago'?" comments, but personally, I have no problem with a nostalgia show about just a few years ago. I don't feel especially nostalgic for when I was 9 or when I was 16. I feel nostalgic for when I was 27.

The 2000 and 2001 shows were on last night; 2002 and 2003 play back to back tonight. There were a few obvious segments in last night's episodes that didn't exactly capture the zeitgeist of years past because nothing has changed since then (remember the iPod? and when people downloaded music off the internet?) But there were a few bits that really did feel like a return to a not-so-distant long-lost era:

  • Failed football experiments: XFL, Dennis Miller hosting Monday Night Football
  • Dude, Where's My Car?
  • Kelly Ripa's debut
  • Sisqo

Many of the hosts of the old shows are back, with the deadpan Michael Ian Black delivering a solid half of the commentary. Dee Snyder is back, squeezing this new show in between episodes of "Rock the Cradle" and "100 Most Metal Moments", as is the most inexplicable of the regular VH1 commentators, Luis Guzman. The guy does 4-6 movies a year and still has time for this crap? He does a good job though. Also back are two members of The Donnas.

New commentators include Toofer and Josh from "30 Rock". Maybe they did this show during the writers' strike?

A few things from our current decade that I already feel nostalgic about:

  • Canceled TV: "The Job" and "The Lone Gunmen"
  • Low Culture (a highlight or two)
  • Fametracker
  • Common and Kanye on "Chappelle's Show" doing "The Food" live [video] (to be honest, the first time I saw this clip from the show was just a few days ago, but the pre-Jamie Foxx Kanye wearing a Kanye West t-shirt and blazer, with Dave Chappelle raising his fist in the studio/kitchen was instant wistfulness.)

June 13, 2008

The mental world of children's merchandising

Here's what Strawberry Shortcake looked like in olden times of the 1980's:

Strawberry Shortcake, 1980's

Here's what she's looked like in recent years:

Strawberry Shortcake, 2000's

And here's her new look, unveiled earlier this week:

Strawberry Shortcake, 2008

The changing look of Strawberry makes me wonder--how do companies market toys and merchandise to small children who can't always verbalize their preferences as consumers? Do 6 year-old girls really want to own more Strawberry Shortcake stickers and sleeping bags if she looks like a skinny-armed anime character with swishy white-girl hair?

It seems like the dessert-themed Strawberry Shortcake series of dolls, which all had candy-scented plastic heads, would be an easy sell to any generation of kids, as long as they love candy. But in the interest of relaunching the brand with a whole new line of toys, clothes, and movies, the Times describes how American Greetings updated Strawberry Shortcake, which demonstrates that marketers don't even try to understand young minds. Here's how to rebrand a popular line of toys:

First, make up a nonsensical marketing concept phrase to describe the desired new image, which in this case downplays the candy-fixation of the old toys: "fruit-forward". (The Times writer manages to work the magnificently absurd "fruit-forward" into the article twice without a single smirky aside.)

Then, get together a group of product licensees and ask them to pick the new design they like best.

That's it.

Most of the old Strawberry Shortcake characters are still around for the relaunch, though Huckleberry Pie, the only boy in the group of friends, has been transformed from a goofy overall-wearing hayseed to a cool skater.

The head designer of the new line of toys notes that some characters "who didn’t immediately shout out fruit" have been phased out. One casualty of the fruit-forward revolution is Mint "rhymes with julep" Tulip, whose scented plastic doll head smelled like Jim Beam.

A few other attempts at rebranding children's toys that didn't work out: Loonatics, which were Bugs Bunny and crew restyled for the 21st century to be menacing and scary, and Earring Magic Ken, who wore a mesh T-shirt, purple leather vest, and one earring. The Times recalls, "The character drew howls from consumers, who did not see him as a realistic boyfriend for Barbie."

[tx T-Rock]

June 12, 2008

Straight people: Start being more like non-straight people

I love my Moms

Lisa "Opt out revolution" Belkin has a piece in the upcoming NYT magazine about parents who, radically, share the work. The Times is clearly prepared for this to be the most-emailed article of the week, having already given Belkin a blog entitled "Equal Parenting". As usual with Belkin, the article is really about middle class problems. Although she claims that the maldistribution of domestic work persists across economic classes, this 'solution' is apparently only appropriate for middle class couples.

Many of the couples in Belkin's article used an organization called Third Path, to help them figure out how to organize work and family time. Third Path will give couples "one-on-one coaching to develop their unique work-family solution" for the low, low price of about $125 per hour. Third Path helpfully suggests that you could give (or request) this coaching as a wedding or baby shower gift. Ew.

This week the Times also published a piece on what straight folks can learn from same-sex couples,(something Belkin also discusses):

"In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally."

So the take home message seems to be: Be fairly wealthy, be more like gay people, pay for expensive life coaching.

Image by arimoore.

May 30, 2008

Times readers are very interested in tripping

NYT most popular stories

Yesterday's Times story about "flavor tripping", a newly popular recreational activity involving a magical berry that makes everything you eat taste sweet, is still at the top of the paper's most emailed list.

While the fruit, called a miracle berry, produces an effect that isn't really psychotropic or mood altering, it has a sensory effect that the article describes like it's Ecstasy for people with oral fixations--"tasting under the influence". Clearly, Times readers want that disco berry-biscuit:

[Tripping party host Franz Aliquo] believes that the best way to encounter the fruit is in a group. "You need other people to benchmark the experience," he said. At his first party, a small gathering at his apartment in January, guests murmured with delight as they tasted citrus wedges and goat cheese. Then things got trippy.

"You kept hearing 'oh, oh, oh,' " he said, and then the guests became "literally like wild animals, tearing apart everything on the table."

"It was like no holds barred in terms of what people would try to eat, so they opened my fridge and started downing Tabasco and maple syrup," he said.

Sure, they're natural, safe, legal, non-narcotic berries, but the Times sure makes them sound like really fun drugs! Expect to see a lot of these berries at Bushwick loft parties all summer, in between rounds of fire-spinning. Added bonus for party hosts: you can buy super cheap booze and it will all taste like heaven to your berry-eating guests.

May 19, 2008

NY Times on purity balls

Today's Times features a piece on purity balls, evangelical father-daughter dances in Colorado Springs that encourage abstinence in girls and interest in their kids' lives in fathers.

Considering the hokey and overtly sexist subject matter, the article is impressively open-minded and even has some positive things to say about these events. But the accompanying slide show of freaky ceremonial hooey suggests a different attitude, more like "Hey, check out these creepy lunatics!"

Case in point:

purity ball


purity ball with swords

Nice sword, dad.

The part of these events that focuses on fathers having good relationships with their daughters sounds great. But there's also the part illustrated above with the sword-arch stuff and the white roses at the foot of the cross. The fathers make the following pledge: "to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity," like their main function as a parent is to act as a spiritual pair of granny panties.

One of the girls at the dance creepily confirms that slutty girls are just working out their daddy issues. She says, "Something I need from dad is affirmation, being told I’m beautiful. If we don’t get it from home, we will go out to the culture and get it from them."

I can just see "the culture" waiting right outside the event hall in the form of horny pantless 17 year-old boys who don't get to attend a ball, make any pledges, or have their pure genitals covered by their authoritarian moms.

April 11, 2008

Cultured meat becoming a reality, still grossing people out

fake meat

Today the Times' environmental blog Dot Earth has a piece about manufactured meat, which is grown in a lab through animal cell cultures instead of as actual animals.

The idea of lab meat has been freaking people out for a few years now as scientists have been figuring out how to culture meat using stem cells. Advocates point out that cultured meat doesn't require killing animals, doesn't cause the environmental damage of raising livestock, produces no waste bone, fat, or other tissue, and is essentially no different from making yogurt or wine by processing natural raw ingredients. And sausages and chicken nuggets are already heavily processed and not really visually recognizable as meat the way a steak or a chicken wing is.

But people still think eating meat grown in a lab is creepy, even if they're cool with eating actual animal meat that's been processed into a sausage or chicken nugget. You also can't grow a pork chop or a wing in a lab.

The Times has been covering this technology for a while, and featured it in the 2005 Year In Ideas issue. The best part of that article is a photo of mouse stem cells, labeled with the caption, "Tube steak?" Dick joke in the Times!

I'm probably going to stick with Boca's delicious Chick'n Nuggets and breakfast links, which are pretty much indistinguishable from genuine processed meat already.

April 3, 2008

Glory Glory Hallelujah

girl with a machine gun

As far as I'm concerned, this is the whole point of user-generated content: Wikipedia's exhaustive entry on the popular generation-spanning parody children's song, "The Burning of the School".

Kids have been singing versions of this song about destroying their schools and torturing/killing their teachers and administrators since 1950's England. I heard a lot of variations between grades 2 and 5, but, of course, the song has been continuously developing in different regions and populations, and today the list of variations of the verses and chorus is vast.

Every version of the song seems to start with "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school", and the chorus always starts with "Glory glory hallelujah, teacher hit me with a ruler", which is like a tribute to the olden days of public school corporal punishment that, even if it isn't practiced anymore, still serves as the justification for fantasizing about killing your teacher. A few variations of lines I hadn't heard before:

  • We have sliced the English teachers and have drowned them in their blood
  • We have wandered down the halls writing cuss words on the walls
  • We have bound and gagged the principal and tossed him in the pool
  • We have barbecued the principal, destroyed the PTA
  • and one funny, grisly variation that completely abandons the rhythmic structure of the song:

  • We have forgotten our multiplication tables, eaten our teachers and their families
  • The chorus variations are simpler, and are mostly based on different models of guns:

  • Met her at the gate with a loaded .38
  • Met her at the door with a loaded .44
  • Shot her in the bean with an M-16
  • Shot her up to heaven with an AK-47
  • And a few dated ones that seem insufficiently gruesome by today's standards, or just don't make sense anymore:

  • I hit her in the bean with a rotten tangerine
  • Met her at the bank with a loaded German tank
  • Now that cops are arresting 3rd graders and charging them with conspiracy to attack their teacher with a paperweight, it's going to be hard for today's elementary schoolers to keep developing the song with new and innovative violent imagery. Keep the underground parody song movement alive, kids!

    April 1, 2008

    Crinkly music fans rejoice

    Paul Simon rocks out

    Tonight at BAM begin a month-long residency by Paul Simon. This seems a little surprising, since BAM usually goes for less mainstream performers (Fiona Shaw in Happy Days buried up to her shoulders in a mound of dirt, for example) and I tend to think of Paul Simon as an eggheady musical tourist that my parents enjoy listening to. A month-long BAM residency by someone like David Byrne, that I could see.

    But Paul Simon? Paul Simon means swarms of aging Upper West Siders in batik kaftans and fake-exotic jewelry, getting down to "You Can Call Me Al".

    Those people will be there, sure, but there will probably be a cool element there too--Pitchfork just reviewed a collection of live Simon and Garfunkel performances that was released by Starbucks. And they gave it a 7.9!

    Also Jon Pareles at the NY Times (not exactly the most forward-thinking music critic, but still) wrote a long piece about Paul Simon with a sort of convincing argument that, for all his success and popularity among people like my parents, he's still an outsider in the music world.

    I'm not sure that one of the world's most recognizable folksy singer-songwriters is still an outsider just because he keeps writing about being alienated and sullen, and Pareles does admit that his style is "smart, bourgeois, fussy wimp." But I'll admit I listened to that Concert in Central Park cassette a million times in high school, and for at least one of the BAM shows, Paul Simon will be joined by David Byrne, as well as actual African people. Remaining tickets start at $100! (Oh well.)

    In other old rock star news, REM's new album "Accelerate" comes out today and they played a good set this morning at Rockefeller Center [video].

    March 12, 2008

    Hollywood heralds the death of yet another street art form

    Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo

    Here's something Hollywood has a long history of doing: latching on to an informal variety of art or performance that was originated by poor people living in big cities, then sucking all the life out of it through a series of big, commercial movies that feature a sanitized version of the original performance/art form.

    In 1980: Can't Stop the Music (disco) and Xanadu (disco roller skating).

    In 1984: Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (breakdancing). These two movies came out only 7 months apart, which says a lot about their production values, and shows how well the producers predicted that the first movie would swiftly obliterate whatever coolness breakdancing still had.

    Now it seems like young star Channing Tatum is making a career out of these kinds of movies. The guy is the star of Step Up and appears in Step Up 2 The Streets.

    (I am guessing that at one time there were young city kids who actually engaged in some form of street dancing, which is different from step dancing, right? Kids in my hometown were metal fans, so I'm out of my element.)

    Channing Tatum is also the star of Dito Montiel's upcoming Fighting, about underground street fighting. And now he's going to star in Parkour, about an undercover cop who enters the shadowy world of underground street gymnastics. [tx T-Rock for developing this theory.]

    By the time Parkour gets released in 2009, it will be 5 years after the French District 13 came out. Parkour probably stopped being cool around 2006, sometime after that one scene in Casino Royale and the Madonna video. Even the Times did their characteristically late trend-watch piece last June. If those weren't enough to make parkour uncool, this should do it.

    Channing Tatum is the perfect prefab famous actor name. If I start acting, I think I'm going to use Hepburn Dakota.

    February 14, 2008

    Attention child therapists: future business alert!

    Kids and posh decor don't go together

    If you're a mental health professional who works with disturbed children, the NY Times published a helpful list of leads today to help you build your client base. It's in the form of an article about the pain parents suffer when having children forces them to alter their home design concepts, titled "Parent Shock: Children Are Not Décor".

    Take down these names, find their contact information, wait a year or two, then contact the families when the kids stop eating, begin cutting themselves, or start sleeping with James Woods. These kids are going to need a LOT of therapy:

    • Debra Cherney and Hartley Bernstein, and kids Cole and Brooke:
      When the twins became mobile, the couple realized that they would need to create a designated play space in their prewar Park Avenue apartment. The room they sacrificed — the formal dining room — was tough.

      She felt the full impact when they put their 18th-century mahogany dining table and chair set in storage. "When I bought the table I was envisioning these beautiful, lovely dinners with fine china. Once you have kids and once you give up those things, it was like, 'Who was I kidding?' I remember thinking this room will look nice again — in about 18 years."

    • Kipp Cheng and Mark Jarecke, and son Beckett:
      "We spent years collecting meaningful, quality pieces. Basically each room was finally done, and then it all got blown apart."

      Among the most troubling matters was the fate of the Barcelona chairs... After much deliberation, they put three in the garage and wrapped the corners of the fourth in foam so it could stay in the living room. "It was just sad," he said.

    • Bob Stratton and Sandra McLean, and kids Vin and Fia:
      "They can play with a toy in the main living area, but it has to go away when they’re done. I’m very concerned with what’s in my visual space. When people come into the house, I very much do not want them being bombarded with toys."

      Ms. McLean instructed Fia and Vin not to eat on the couch, and told them half-jokingly not to "sit on it, stand near it or even look at it."

    • Jacqueline Brown and Gavin Friedman, and son Harrison:
      They were determined not to let Harrison "take control of the house," Ms. Brown said. They went ahead with putting in flat-front lacquered maple cabinets in the kitchen, even though they soon had to watch a professional babyproofer drill 300 holes in them for safety latches. (Ms. Brown still cringes.) And they held onto the molded-wood chairs, which were not an easy transition from the highchair. "They have a very sleek bottom," Ms. Brown explained. "He slides off it."

    I bet children of wealthy interior design enthusiasts who grew up with furniture they weren't allowed to touch sometimes wonder if their parents really love them. Now they know!

    Lots of sputtering indignation in the readers' comments.

    February 4, 2008

    Sons of Italy vs. scratch tickets

    Bada Bling ad

    When The Sopranos was on the air, the Sons of Italy protested its unflattering negative stereotypes of the Italian-American community--specifically, they claimed Italian characters on the show were mostly mobsters, criminals, murderers and, in their words, "low-class, dim-witted hoodlums." David Chase said the show was "about America" and wasn't meant to generalize about Italian-Americans, but the Sons of Italy stayed mad.

    Now that the show's over, the Sons of Italy are protesting a cheap, unfunny rip-off of The Sopranos produced by the NY State Lottery for one of their scratch games, Ba-Da Bling. Here's the TV ad for Ba-Da Bling that caused the problem:

    Bada Bling Video

    You'll note that some of the four ganster-type guys in the ad look almost exactly like Sopranos characters, and that they have really schlocky fake Brooklyn accents. And that the name of the scratch game is obviously taken from the strip club where the guys all hung out on the show.

    Stella Grillo from the local Sons of Italy chapter says about the protest, "I know a lot of people are saying you are overly sensitive. But Americans have become more sensitive to most racial groups, and it should apply to Italian-Americans."

    I don't know where she's seeing all this sensitivity--if you look at this one cruddy state-sponsored lottery ad, you'll also notice young black men with lots of jewelry, big cars, and puffy jackets rapping about money. And a group of girls in tiny hideous outfits enthusiastically shaking their asses all over everything.

    If anything, I'm impressed that the lottery could reference gangsters, rappers, strippers, one of the best TV series of our time, and loud obnoxious jewelry all in one 30-second ad for a program that mostly exists to fund public education.

    Almost half of the $2.3 billion that the state generates for education through the lottery every year goes to NYC schools. So you can feel good about perpetuating a whole rainbow of stereotypes for a good cause.

    January 25, 2008

    Hey Palestine, let's go shopping!

    Palestinians shop!

    Life's been tough in Gaza lately. The people are ruled by a militant regime, there's at least 50% unemployment, and even if you have some money it's hard to buy food, medicine, gas, appliances, and pretty much everything else you would want.

    Which is why it's been nice to see the tens of thousands of Palestinians flooding across the breached border into Egypt yesterday and today in an unbridled frenzy of consumerism. An economic analyst quoted by AP estimates that Gazans have spent $130 million in Egypt since Wednesday.

    Egypt is moving toward controlling the shoppers eager to buy anything local vendors have to offer, but news reports suggest that until tonight, no one was doing much to stop them from coming in, and Hamas isn't taxing any goods they bring back. One Egyptian official estimates that 120,000 Palestinians are in Egypt, buying all the TVs, cigarettes, goats, generators, and potato chips (with special inflated prices) they can carry from the Egyptian border town they're temporarily being allowed into.

    But of course, some resourceful Palestinians are taking this opportunity to experience other aspects of urban life they don't usually have access to. The Times interviewed Muhammad al-Hirakly, 22, while he was in line to ride the bumper cars at an amusement park. He and his friends were going to try to get all the way to Cairo, "to see the big city and our family there, and also the girls," he said. "It's the most fun we've had in years."

    An older visitor took a more philosophical view of his moment of freedom:

    Adel al-Mighraky, 54, was returning to Rafah... "We were like birds in a cage," he said. Once the door is open, he said, "birds will fly away as fast as they can — this is what we did. But what kind of bird has to go back to its cage after it was freed?"

    Olmert and Abbas are meeting this weekend, and there are rumors that Israel might let the Palestinians take control of the Gaza borders, which have been pretty much totally closed since June. After seeing how happy a brief, overpriced shopping spree can make residents of Gaza, I hope the Israelis can recognize that despite our differences, we're all consumers at heart.

    December 4, 2007

    Led Zeppelin reunites, faces prospect of playing "Stairway to Heaven"

    Slow dancing to Stairway to Heaven

    [middle school slow dance photo from Asphalt Jungle]

    Every time there's the tiniest bit of news or rumor related to Led Zeppelin's upcoming reunion concert in London, the world goes nuts. Some news has been genuinely exciting, like the potential tour next year with the Cult, a rumor that was started by Cult singer Ian Astbury himself, who said they were going to tour with a band that begins with "L" and has a "Z" in it. (Though maybe he meant Limp Bizkit.) Some news has been more mundane, like the coverage about Jimmy Page's broken pinky finger, which postponed the show originally scheduled for November.

    I was glad to see that someone more knowledgeable than I am did some analysis of Jimmy Page's off-hand comment that they were planning to play a song that they had never played live before at the show, guessing that it might be "For Your Life" from their final album Presence. Which is not exactly the kind of song that compels music critics to call Led Zeppelin the greatest rock band of all time, but still, it's news like this that fans want to hear.

    But the best article I've read lately is one on Slate today, that focuses entirely on the question of whether Led Zeppelin will play "Stairway to Heaven" at their reunion concert or not.

    That is a great question. "Stairway to Heaven" is undoubtedly the Led Zep song that many people heard first, hear most often, and is the song that devoted classic rock radio listeners request the most and, consequently, that others least want to hear. It's the most radically overplayed of all overplayed songs. Anyone playing "Stairway to Heaven" runs the risk, as the Slate writer says, of "sounding like a lame cover band."

    It also doesn't help that a lot of people will forever associate it with middle school dances and all the humiliation that goes along with trying to slow dance for the first half, then deal with the awkward segue into the fast part at the end. Just the association with any aspect of middle school makes it a song that's difficult to appreciate on its own merits.

    Plus, it's a weird song. The author of the Slate article writes, "It was "Stairway" that branded Zeppelin as spaced-out mystics," with those hokey, pretend pagan, potentially-Satanic hedgerow-bustling faerie lyrics. It's not until the last third that it gets good and starts sounding like a song that nobody but Led Zeppelin could have made, and as hard as it is to listen to such a familiar song and really hear it, let's admit it: it rocks.

    The band has already played it a billion times, and Robert Plant has basically disowned it, though they still played it at their earlier reunion concerts, Live Aid and an Atlantic Records anniversary concert in 1988--concerts that Jimmy Page admits sucked. So yeah, I bet they'll do "Stairway to Heaven", but Robert Plant will be rolling his eyes the whole time.

    November 29, 2007

    NY's new unconvincing anti-domestic violence ad campaign

    NY's anti-domestic violence campaign ad

    OK, whatever, mom.

    Sure, not slugging your girlfriend is probably the right thing to do, but it's such a drag!

    Even teenage boys know that hitting girls is wrong and disrespectful, and illegal, but this approach makes domestic violence sound like something sort of fun and illicit, like filling up on Cheetos before dinner and blowing off Chemistry lab.

    The TV ad for New York State's new domestic violence prevention ad campaign looks better.

    NY domestic violence ad still

    [download ads or read scripts]

    The TV ad uses the same logic as those animated anti-pot smoking ads from earlier this year in which a stoner's girlfriend gets bored with him and goes off with a cute alien. Social scare tactics--that your friends and girls will think you're lame--are probably much more effective deterrents than moralistic scolding of "eat your vegetables" or "do your homework" or "dude, that weed is gonna blow your mind".

    November 14, 2007

    Kelly Ripa doesn't care what anyone says, ass is still the new tits

    Kelly Ripa in her ass-hugging jeans

    Here's how Kelly Ripa got her butt to produce that modest but discernible curve, in her own words in Fitness magazine:

    I buy jeans that are tight in the rear end. I'm not kidding. I treat my cheeks like breasts in a pushup bra. I just reach down in there, lift them up and push them together. And they'll stay put if the jeans are tight enough in the seat.

    That's right, girl! Demand support and definition for that teeny little butt!

    Last spring the Times priggishly claimed that the new erogenous zone was protruding collarbones, but with Kelly Ripa talking about mashing up her butt cleavage inside her jeans and Slate's recent "buttock innovation" slideshow, I think the ass still has this one nailed.

    November 12, 2007

    Georgia prays for rain

    Dog River Reservoir runs dry

    Georgia and much of the southeast have been in a serious drought for months now. One town in Tennessee ran out of water a couple of weeks ago, and the Dog River Reservoir in sububuran Atlanta (pictured above) is nearly dry. Bans have been instituted on "secretive late-night lawn watering" with violators getting their water supply shut off.

    So tomorrow, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue is going to pray for rain, along with state legislators and religious leaders. Some residents think this makes total sense. As Rocky Twyman, the organizer of a recent rain-dedicated gospel concert, said:

    We need to call on God, because what we're doing isn't working. We think that instead of all this fussing and fighting, Gov. Perdue and all these others would come together and pray.

    Uh huh. I guess by "fussing and fighting" he means "conserving water". Given that greater Atlanta has become synonymous with "urban sprawl hell", and the fact that there are no lakes that aren't man-made in the entire state of Georgia, then yes, it's true: what they're doing isn't working.

    Not everyone likes that the state government is turning to prayer to address the problem. The Atlanta Freethought Society is staging a protest. "The governor can pray when he wants to," said Ed Buckner, who is organizing the protest. "What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia."

    But the last time the governor prayed for rain, it worked! Kind of. In 1986, then-governor Joe Frank Harris sent out a proclamation asking Georgians to pray for rain. A few days later began "several weeks of almost daily rains," he claims, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that they actually started getting some rain a few days before the magical state-wide prayer intervention.

    November 6, 2007

    America's decline: our public works are ugly, lethal

    NYC manhole cover

    Above is a picture of your basic, ugly NYC manhole cover.

    Now check out this array of beautifully-designed manhole covers from Japan that Wired linked to today:

    Japan manhole covers

    Each Japanese prefecture makes its own unique manhole covers, many of which are brightly colored and feature cute dancing crabs, frogs, and aliens.

    Meanwhile in our own country, the most interesting things our manhole covers do are burn or electrocute people.

    And in the larger world of American public works, if the city that you live in hasn't had a major road explode, a bridge collapse, a retaining wall crush rush-hour traffic, or run out of water, you should consider yourself lucky.

    November 1, 2007


    Halloween Parade crowd

    photo by dietrich

    Is any crowd as enthusiastic as the crowd at the Village Halloween Parade? This year's parade was incredibly popular and crowded, but as always, lots of fun.

    After years of self-delusion, I can finally admit that everybody in the entire world takes better pictures than I do. Here are some of the neatest, funniest, or freakiest costumes seen at the Village Halloween Parade last night:

    A few themes that ran through this year's parade:

    • Last year there were a lot of MySpace page costumes, this year I saw a Facebook page costume, and no MySpace. This is probably a good sign for youth culture and the world in general.
    • Larry Craig, everywhere [NSFW]
    • Bald guys who realized this was the one chance they had to dress as Britney Spears
    • A TON of robots. Think I saw more robots than any other costume.

    NY1's George Whipple was on the spot, in a military costume. Note to self: Optimize chances of meeting George Whipple by dressing as him for next year's parade.

    [tx Jess]

    October 31, 2007

    Happy Halloween!

    candy corn

    [photo by Ladybug1016]

    I've already peaked and crashed a few times today from eating tons of candy (my favorites this year have been Peeps Spooky Friends™ Halloween-themed candy. I usually don't like veering from the classic yellow peep design, but those little spiders are awesome.) And tonight is going to be costume construction, the parade (enter on the east side of 6th Ave only, according to the site), and femoral injections of high fructose corn syrup.

    So I'll just pick a few of the best quotes from the Times feature on foodie types and their favorite scores from childhood Halloweens, and what they plan to give out this year. Note that while some of the notable food folks are going to make special, homemade, arguably healthy snacks to hand out, every single one of them lists commercial, mass-produced, gut-rotting corporate candy as what they most desired as children. How quickly they forget!

    Anyway, some favorites:

    "Butterfingers, or anything with that foam candy center. I would try to trade with my brother, but you know how it is: we both wanted chocolate and no one wanted those circus peanuts." Elizabeth Falkner, chef, Citizen Cake, San Francisco

    "The emphasis was on quantity not quality, with only part of the actual take declared to the authorities. Candy bars were rare (this was before bite-size), and those houses were revisited an hour or so later." Steve DeVries, chocolatier, DeVries Chocolate, Denver

    "I well remember my disgust whenever someone offered me a homemade brownie or, worst of all, an apple. Halloween is the high holy day of high fructose corn syrup. And if we can keep it to one or two such days, why not?" Michael Pollan, journalist and author, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma"

    Personally I would love to get my hands on some gelatinous-bloody-tooth themed Kid's Brand Tooth Ache Candy. Delicious!

    October 22, 2007

    This week's teeth-gritting Style section

    Grammar Bytes

    A few articles from yesterday's Times Fashion & Style section that seem to provide some meta-commentary on the world we live in.

    First there's a piece on socialite Tinsley Mortimer's husband. His name is Topper, he's an investment advisor and a fan of Caddyshack, and he offered many spectacularly clumsy quotes that I am very grateful to the Times for choosing not to clean up at all:

    "It’s worked out well for Tinsley," Mr. Mortimer said. "She’s built a great business for herself, she’s heading in the direction that she’d like to see herself."

    But, he continued, "I don’t know that the route to how she got there is what I’d tell my 5-year-old girl to follow if I had one... I just never liked that whole thing with everybody trying to gain status from being involved in these charity events."

    As awkward as his criticism is, Topper is clearly unhappy about his wife's pointless fame. Sure, he could have married someone who wasn't such a calculating publicity-hog, but he didn't know he would end up connected to the empty, self-serving elite social scene. He later compares Tinsley unfavorably to LeAnn Rimes, who also attended an event, because at least LeAnn "didn’t make her bones going to charity parties. She did something else." Preach it, Topper!

    Next we've got a "What's Next for Lance Bass?" piece about his memoir, Out of Sync (a title I bet celebrity biographers have been dying to use for most of the last decade.) He says "it was very, I don’t know, like, therapeutic" to write the book, but as much as he hopes his former bandmates will read it (especially JT, who he slams for going solo) he's not sure they will. "It’ll take them a while because none of them like to read," he said.

    It must have been hard for the Times to publish so many gems in one section, but later they indulge their editorial superiority with "Your Modifier Is Dangling", a tribute to hopeless cause supporters who rage against grammatical abuse. These people have started Facebook clubs like I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar and Grammar Freaks United in which they can vent their outrage at the world.

    OK, I hate it when shampoo ads say their product "structurizes" your hair as much as the next girl, but check out this advice from business writing consultant Lynne Agress about what to do when somebody you're talking to makes a grammatical error:

    Don’t point out the mistake. Instead, repeat what was just said, but with correct usage this time, and in your own sentence. Then keep talking.

    "So if someone tells me that everyone has their issues," she said, "I reply, 'Yes, everyone has his issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to worry about them.'"

    Yuck! Gee, I think they might pick up on your totally unsubtle correction, there. I know, "their" is wrong. But many people who have a robust appreciation of grammar use "their" as a replacement for the clunkier "his or her" when speaking, knowing it's incorrect, to avoid using sexist language. The fact is, there is no polite or non-prickish way to correct someone's grammar unless you are a teacher, or unless someone specifically asks you to edit their writing. You're just going to have to bitch to your grammar vigilante Facebook group.

    September 6, 2007

    Now you can be a patriot AND an elitist

    Made in USA

    Remember when campaigns trying to get people to Buy American were mostly Wal-Mart territory and made you think of eagle-emblazoned sweatshirts and visors with flags on them?

    Today, the NY Times tells us that the fashionable liberal elite has embraced Made in USA products. The local food movement, the high carbon footprint generated by buying European bottled water, and toxic Chinese toys have all inspired the urban cognoscenti to start supporting some domestic companies, particularly when their products are more expensive than foreign ones.

    Price seems to be the determining factor when wealthy people decide it's cool to buy American; as the Times says, "It is hard to imagine, say, that people who tote reusable cotton bags to Whole Foods will ditch their beloved Saabs for an American-made Chevrolet Cobalt." But $1,250 custom-made bikes, designer t-shirts with flags on the tags, or top of the line New Balance sneakers with big USA logos? Sold! Conspicuous consumers are suddenly turning into a bunch of flag-waving patriots.

    But this is still a pretty recent demographic shift for the Buy American market. Many products that proudly display their Americanness might be a little too patriotic for those who are really just "people wanting to have guilt-free affluence,” as Alex Steffen, editor of a sustainability website, calls them.

    Yes, the less prestigious side of "Made in USA" is still with us--it's not all hand-painted sustainably-harvested wooden toy trucks. You can still be outrageously tacky while spending an assload of money on showing the world that your purchases are not just more mass-market knockoffs from China:

    Hyper-patriotic car:

    Flag gown:

    Flag iPod case:

    Flag jewels:

    America, fuck yeah!

    August 31, 2007

    Niche dating

    Yesterday we noticed that the usual JDate billboard on the corner of Broadway and 47th had been replaced by a new ad for


    JDate billboard


    Black Singles billboard

    Hm! Did JDate's lease on the space run out, and another dating service, eager to attract the attention of single tourists waiting in line at the Olive Garden who have some very culturally-specific dating preferences, snapped it up?

    Or could the same company operate both services?

    Yep, it's Spark Networks, a provider of online personals for, as they put it, "likeminded" singles to connect. Now that and Craig's List have been totally overrun by hookers and phone sex lines, this company covers the spectrum of identity politics in dating.

    They've got religiously oriented sites, like JDate, Catholic Mingle, Christian Mingle, Baptist Singles Connection, Adventist Singles Connection and both the Mormon MySpace-y LDS Mingle and the somewhat more cut-to-the-chase LDS Singles.

    You can screen your future sexual partners by race and ethnicity with sites for people of Asian, Greek, Italian, and Latino descent, and the all-American Interracial Singles. Some sites make some culture assumptions about the purpose of dating, like the Indian site called Indian Matrimonial Network which "facilitates Indian dating and marriage". There are sites for deaf people, college students, military personnel, old people, single parents, and people who want to get busy within the next 15 minutes. And of course, a site for people who admire big beautiful women (BBW Personals Plus).

    With one company representing all these different kinds of people, how culturally sensitive can each site really be? It seems like they've tried in most cases to use language on each site that will appeal to each niche, with the Catholic dating service sort of confusingly described as "clean, safe, and fun" but not surprisingly with nothing in there about God, while Christian Mingle offers the chance to meet "singles that share your values and love for God in Christ." And the College Luv site's tagline-- "Sign up, Look up, Hook up!"-- shows an intimate understanding of its target demographic.

    What about sites for gay people? This is interesting. There is no gay dating site on Spark Networks, and almost all the sites only include searches for heterosexual dating. The exceptions are College Luv (young people aren't as uptight maybe?), Hurry Date (because people who want to get laid ASAP are of all persuasions), American Singles (for people who are so bland they don't have any niche identity), and JDate! Good old non-homophobic JDate. The gay Christians out there can stick to the Minneapolis airport men's room, I guess.

    August 29, 2007

    A whole new way to destroy the world

    Humane Society environmental ad

    Last year, the UN came out with a report on climate change that said that the livestock industry generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation all over the world. It sounds pretty unbelievable, but it's true: methane is 21 times worse, climate-wise, than carbon dioxide, so all those cow farts are screwing up the environment a lot worse than SUVs are.

    Thing is, a lot of environmental groups and figures like Al Gore aren't saying anything about the livestock industry, at least not the same way they're talking about cars and coal-burning power plants and fluorescent lightbulbs. But today, the NY Times speaks up about it: an article about meat as a cause of global warming is right there in the Business section. The big environmental groups aren't targeting meat in their campaigns, but, not surprisingly, animal rights groups are.

    PETA has this ad directed at Al Gore, who didn't include anything about the meat industry in An Inconvenient Truth:

    Al Gore PETA ad

    It's funny in that blunt, mean PETA way, and it's good to let people know that not eating a lot of meat will help the environment. But when groups like PETA or The Humane Society (who made the car key/fork ad above) talk about the environment only in terms of saving animals, it probably won't convince people to change their behavior. PETA is good at stopping KFC from chopping the beaks off chickens and sometimes getting attractive people to pose naked, but we need more mainstream environmental groups to start talking about the meat thing.

    And why shouldn't they? The head of the Sierra Club says "we do not find lecturing people about personal consumption choices to be effective." But they have no problem telling people to take public transportation more often and to buy different air conditioners and those damn ugly fluorescent bulbs.

    Is reducing meat consumption just too radical for environmentalists to mention? Even ELECTRIC COMPANIES are telling consumers to buy appliances that use less electricity to help reduce global warming.

    It reminds me of the dust-up over top selling diet book Skinny Bitch that women are buying like crazy, then becoming outraged by one of the central messages of the book: a good way to lose weight is to be a vegan. In another Times article, we learn about readers such as Laura McGlinchey, 41-year-old computer network manager:

    She bought the book on Amazon because she was attracted by the packaging and "irreverent tone."

    So she was surprised to encounter chapters on meat and poultry farming practices. "It seemed to be pushing more of a PETA agenda," she said, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group. Ms. McGlinchey said she was so fed up that she didn’t even finish the book.

    Aww, poor little offended baby. As Skinny Bitch author Rory Freedman said, "They’re mad that they spent $14 on a book that was not what they thought, but they’re not mad that chickens are having beaks chopped off their faces? How is that possible? I can’t even wrap my mind around that."

    It seems like the best way to get people to actually change their behavior is to create a product that they can buy to feel like they're helping to save the environment. Toyota and Honda have done a great job letting drivers know how their hybrid cars are good things to buy if you want to reduce emissions, and Panasonic will happily tell you all about their energy-saving flat screen TVs.

    The corporations that would benefit from more consumers adopting vegetarian diets need to get on the ball with marketing some celebrity-endorsed tofu. Forget those Sierra Club wimps--Vitasoy and Morningstar, you guys get on the phone with Pamela Anderson and Forest Whitaker and make some good ads, OK?

    August 14, 2007

    Miss America moves up the crumbling ladder of cable respectability

    Miss America billboard

    Two years ago, ABC dumped the rights to air the Miss America pageant. The ratings sucked, maybe because we live in a changing world where viewers no longer care about outdated feminine ideals, or maybe because now we see parades of blandly homogeneous beautiful people on every channel every single day, so who cares about 52 more? In one-piece bathing suits?

    In 2005, CMT bought the Miss America rights for two years, which seemed perfect. The big hair, big makeup, and devotion to God and working with children fit right in with CMT's audience--representatives of both groups talked a lot about the "traditions" and "values" and "heartland sensibilities" that they share, and it seemed that the gaudy dresses, taped breasts, and hokey sentimentality of Miss America had found its new spiritual home. The giant billboard that CMT put up in Times Square of decades of Miss Americas screeching and crying and pulling at their hair showed that they totally got the enduring appeal of their new show.

    But ratings fell from 3.1 million last year to 2.4 earlier this year, so CMT decided to go back to Coyote Ugly recruiting reality shows and Dukes of Hazzard reruns. Yesterday the winners of the bidding war/fire sale for broadcast rights was announced: The Learning Channel.

    I can see how TLC offers its viewers learning opportunities in its How To shows about the real estate market, home repair and improvement, and creating a flattering wardrobe. "Big Medicine" and "Diagnosis X" are pretty good real-life medical shows that are fun to watch and arguably educational. But "Miami Ink", and the new hyper-advertised "LA Ink", about tattoo artists and their tattoos and the tattoos they give their customers? Not exactly the cable version of PBS.

    It's nice for Miss America, sort of, to be adopted by a channel with a more respectable, sort of, image. But TLC isn't good at the glitz and pneumatic cleavage of Miss America. They're trying to make it more of a human interest documentary with a reality show about the contestants before the pageant. Boring! "This collaboration is a tremendous opportunity for us to present this scholarship pageant and great American tradition to our viewers with a contemporary production style unique to our channel," said the TLC president.

    That's right, scholarship pageant! Yee-ha, Learning Channel. The president also calls Miss America contestants "52 of the country's smartest and most beautiful women", which I don't think was a selling point that CMT ever used in its marketing. We'll see if America goes for the "smart" angle in January.

    August 3, 2007

    Small-town New England, the anti-LA

    Small town Maine, fisherman dolls

    In a world where celebrities' vacations, shopping trips, and visits to Starbucks are the sole content of hundreds of media outlets, it's refreshing to see parts of our country where famous people go about their lives among people who couldn't care less. A couple of small vacation destinations in northern New England have made the news this week, bringing national attention to parts of our country that are used to being out of the spotlight, and want to keep it that way, thank you very much.

    On Monday, Chief Justice John Roberts suffered an unexpected seizure while at his vacation home on the coast of Maine. A NY Times article on the reaction of the townspeople to the brief onslaught of media attention is a beautiful example of Maine culture, where people are so committed to being under the radar that they take offense when outsiders create a fuss over local VIPs. It must be a shock for media people, used to working in parts of America where people will gladly suffer any humiliation necessary to get on national TV, to try to operate in towns like Port Clyde where locals are totally unfazed by their celebrities and seem to have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

    "I wish the media would go away and leave him alone," said Caroline Voile, owner of the Port Clyde General Store, where the chief justice buys his groceries. "There are a lot of people on the islands who have high notoriety. They’d just as soon live quietly by themselves."

    "It’s back to normal, business as usual — that was just a quick thing," said Ann Coffin, sitting outside the Port Clyde Baptist Church, whose sewing circle had made the fisherman dolls.

    The coast of Maine seems to be the world's best place for famous people to go if they don't want anybody to take their picture or mess with their business or even notice them. My favorite Maine understatements about Chief Justice Roberts came from a couple of local guys. Dennis Cushman: "Around here he puts his pants on the same way we all do," and his lobsterman brother Mike: "He’s a wicked nice guy."

    And today, French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he would spend two weeks vacationing in Wolfeboro, NH on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. The town manager's response in the press is somewhere on the border of a shrug and a whatever hand gesture: "We're going to have to get our French flags out, I guess."

    July 25, 2007

    Whiny teenage girls are driving even themselves nuts

    teenage girls talking

    A couple of surprising pieces of news today about the risks of friendship.

    First, researchers found that when teenage girls sit around and moan nonstop about how hard their lives are and how they're so depressed, it turns out that they really are making themselves depressed. A little sharing of your problems is OK, but when girls "co-ruminate" excessively (about how much they totally hate their moms and no boys will ever like them and omg their hair is so flat and hideous) it often leads to "persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worry." Yeah, shocker.

    So this means long-suffering, sullen, complaining, self-obsessed girls really do need to shut the hell up--for their own and everybody else's mental health. Hopefully this study will lead to a public health campaign that also forces them to stop writing poetry.

    Interestingly, this phenomenon doesn't appear to happen to boys, who get positive emotional results from sharing their problems with friends. The scientists say they believe the same trends may apply to adults.

    And in the popular story that is sure to undermine relationships all over the nation, if you have a close friend of the same sex who gains weight, your chances of becoming obese go up by 71%! By comparison, the same study found that stopping smoking seemed to have no influence on risk of obesity. I know! Incredible.

    So I guess the lesson is, yeah, your friends might make you fat, but as long as you don't bitch about it too much, you should be fine.

    July 19, 2007

    It's the middle of July. Anyone seen a TUSH?

    Rihanna umbrella single

    Most summers, a pop song has emerged by now that so saturates our environment that you hardly go a day without hearing it somewhere. Car stereos, bars, the Gristedes PA system, radios at the beach--it's everywhere. It's the Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit.

    I've been listening hard every time I go into a Rite Aid or a bodega to identify the song that will be the definitive hit of summer 2007, but I'm still waiting. What is this year's TUSH? Today, the NY Times' Kelefa Sanneh wonders the same thing. He comes down strongly supporting Rihanna's "Umbrella" [video], which was auspiciously released right before Memorial Day, and only got knocked off #1 on the charts this week. Of course, in his review back in June, he predicted that it would be this year's Song of the Summer, and whaddaya know, now he says he was right!

    I should also note that Kelefa Sanneh suggests that the 2005 TUSH was Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together", when everybody knows it was "Hollaback Girl", obviously.

    "Umbrella" is catchy, sure, and I like it OK, but it lacks the warmth and energy of your ideal summer hit. Plus it's not so great to dance to. Last year's TUSH, "Crazy", was unconventional too--a consideration of mental illness and death somehow lacks the buoyancy of "Macarena" or "Good gracious, ass bodacious", the opening of "Hot in Herre".

    There's still a lot of summer left, but so far I'm not quite hearing non-stop, unavoidable, ubiquitous "Umbrella" airwave saturation. Or maybe I just need to go to bars more. So what else would qualify? Sanneh offers "Beautiful Girls" by Sean Kingston [cute video], and earlier WNYC suggested a few other songs that seem off base now, such as Ne-Yo's "Do You", which I rarely hear and in my opinion is a pretty terrible song.

    Last year you could have picked one of at least 4 or 5 songs and declared it TUSH 2006. This year's a little trickier. It will all be clear in another month--what's it going to be?

    July 12, 2007

    NY Times reveals unbearable new office stress you probably didn't realize you were suffering

    Marilyn on two phones

    I'm beginning to think the NY Times' weekly "Life's Work" column by Lisa Belkin exists solely to drive me up the wall.

    Today's column is about how totally impossible it is to get anything done at work because of all the different newfangled ways there are to reach people nowadays. Instead of just having phone numbers, some people that you want to contact also have email addresses. And not only that, some people also have cell phones! And one or two sadistic monsters of the corporate world who want nothing more than to trample upon your human spirit even make use of text messaging!

    Seriously, this weekly column is supposed to be about navigating the complexities of the world of work, and this one is about the struggle to figure out whether you should email someone or call them.

    It's especially bizarre because in most cases she mentions where a person has more than one form of contact information, they actually come right out and tell her and everybody else how they prefer to be contacted. Some have voicemail messages that say "I don’t check messages here too often, so if you want to reach me in a timely fashion please e-mail me."

    Is that really so confusing?

    Apparently it is. Belkin writes, "Does he or she hate e-mail, letting it build up in the inbox, but quick to answer the cellphone on the first ring? Does the person refuse to carry a cellphone, but grab the office line through the Bluetooth that is literally attached to one ear?"

    Then she answers these frantic questions with an example of one of these she-demons of modern communications, Jeni Hatter who works at Rollins College in Florida: "I prefer to be contacted on my cellphone. It is immediate, and it is always with me." HOW DARE SHE?!

    Actually, like most of her examples, it seems like Belkin personally has no problem with just telling people the best way to contact her. She describes an anecdote in which her voicemail message encouraging callers to email her for a faster response prompted one man to leave a message saying "That is so rude. Who do you think you are?"

    Maybe Belkin is onto something, here. Maybe the world really is full of easily-offended, helpless people unable to cope with the labyrinthine world of office communications. John Corzine announced today that he will no longer be using email, at all, after realizing through an investigation that emails written from public office accounts are public record. He says he's going to shun not only email, but apparently also telephones, fax machines, dictaphones, and two aluminum cans with a piece of string tied between them: "We'll go back to the 1920s and have direct conversations with people," he huffed.

    June 27, 2007

    Hey kids! It's summer! Time to get drunk with the NY Times!

    underage drinking

    Today's Dining section of the Times features a selection of personal memoirs called "Reflections in an Ice Cube: The Drinks of Memory". The feature is intended to be a nostalgic look back at refreshing and delicious summertime cocktails that some writers enjoyed in their younger years, and some of the entries very nicely achieve just that.

    And some of the entries are about teenage girls getting wasted.

    Here's Monique Truong, whose very classy and respectable summer drink is white sangria, but the drink of memory that inspires her choice is, and this is just a guess here, Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill:

    White sangria reminds me of the bottles of convenience store wine coolers that my girlfriends and I consumed in alarming quantities in the back seat of cars while stuck in Texas in the prime of our teenage years. Sweet, cheap and perversely and resolutely not beer (long necks being the patriotic drink of the Republic of Texas), wine coolers were our fast ticket out of sobriety and the confines of our suburban youth.

    And Gabrielle Hamilton still loves her Long Island Iced Teas, which she first enjoyed as a 13 year-old, first helping herself to her parents' liquor cabinet, then hitchhiking into New York and going to a bar:

    We found ourselves — such is the power of the teenage sense of immortality — perched on bar stools at an Upper West Side restaurant saying, “Um, I think I’ll have a Long Island iced tea, please.” It was the only drink we knew to order. We’d been getting blitzed on them for some time by siphoning off our parents’ liquor and replacing it with tap water. I remember being curled up on the orange shag rug, feeling the whole planet spin.

    The bartender did not card us. The bartender did not roll his eyes to the heavens. He filled — freehand — two giant tulip-shape glasses that could have doubled as hurricane lamps with well liquors, prefab sour mix and cola from a sticky soda gun. And set them down in front of us.

    Then much later they get a ride home, drunk, with some random man they meet on the train and oh my god are teenage girls morons. These girls probably grew up watching Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic in middle school health class, too.

    These stories are told with a rapturous tone that makes teenage drinking sound not just appealing but totally irresistibly fun and adventurous; if I was a 14 year-old reading these stories at home, I would wait until my parents had gone to bed and march right over to the hall closet and start pouring Seagram's 7 into my mouth with a funnel.

    I can't wait to see the dismayed letters from concerned parents who have been noticing their own bottles of whiskey have been getting a little bit... paler lately.

    There's also a tamer, but still technically illegal drinking anecdote about a journalist in Iraq who talks with an Army captain there about how much he misses beer, and then the journalist sneaks him a case of Carlsberg in a garbage bag.

    June 25, 2007

    "Vaya con dios, brah. 18% gratuity included."

    Johnny Utah's

    This full-page ad in Time Out turns out to not be a joke. Johnny Utah's is the new restaurant opening in July at the Rockefeller Center Hotel on West 51st St.

    Although Johnny Utah is the undercover FBI agent portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the landmark 1991 California-Buddhist-surfer-bank-robber heist-buddy movie Point Break, for the purposes of midtown fine dining, the name is meant to evoke the old American southwest. From the hotel website about their "urban cowboy experience": "It was a time in which food and drink dictated the mood and voracious appetite of outlaws, gunslingers, cattle barons, and muleskinners."

    I'm not sure how those voracious muleskinners would have felt about the Lone Ranger tofu salad or the Coyote Ugly burger at Johnny Utah's. Actually, the "food of the vaqueros" selections on the menu suggest that by "old west", the managers of Johnny Utah's seem to mean "any part of American culture that isn't the northeast." They've got southern pulled pork, Mexican tequila, a "Wyoming grilled" steak sandwich, and a breakfast item called the "Buffalo Bill Granola Bowl", which even makes this city slicker wince.

    Just a little background, in case you missed Point Break the last 35 times it was on TBS: Johnny Utah, non-cowboy, was a quarterback at Ohio State; an injury forced him out of football; he's an FBI agent who's a lot more bored with the straight and narrow life than he's willing to admit, and gets seduced by the free-spirited surfer lifestyle represented by the mystical and insane bank robber Patrick Swayze, aka Bodhi, with whom he develops a complex guru/father-figure-but-cooler relationship, and the two share many scenes of intense non-homosexual man-love and questionable acting.

    The movie also features the greatest skydiving action sequence of all time, in which Johnny Utah jumps out of the plane without a parachute, catches Bodhi mid-air, then has to decide between letting go of his gun and pulling the ripcord of the parachute strapped to Bodhi, or holding onto his gun and falling to a sure death, because he can't do both and Bodhi WILL NOT PULL THAT RIPCORD.

    But anyway, surfers aren't cowboys.

    Related: IMDb's extensive collection of memorable quotes from Point Break. Wikipedia's Point Break page includes references to the movie, such as this one from Hot Fuzz: "Have you ever pointed your gun up in the air, shooting wildly shouting 'Aaaarrrggghhh' because you were friends with who you had to shoot?"

    June 6, 2007

    Tyler Perry's media juggernaut keeps on rolling

    House of Payne

    Tonight is the TBS premiere of Tyler Perry's first TV show "House of Payne", which like his other productions is about a southern black family and their various troubles and successes. There aren't many other people working in entertainment today like Tyler Perry, who has become enormously popular and rich working outside mainstream media channels.

    "House of Payne" aired for 10 episodes last spring in New York, Philly, Chicago, Houston, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore and Raleigh, and was popular enough to incite a bidding war among networks. TBS bought an unprecedented 100 episodes of the show, which start airing tonight, and Fox also got in on the deal to air episodes starting next fall.

    Not bad for a show totally created by one man (Tyler Perry is director, producer, executive producer and writer) who paid for the production of the first 10 episodes himself at his own studio, then sold those into syndication, then got a network to buy 100 episodes at once. As the New York Times points out in an article about the phenomenal success of every single thing Tyler Perry does, this is backwards from the usual process of getting a network show made, and has allowed him to continue making the kinds of productions that studios may not be quick to recognize as promising: "I went to LA and pitched to a room full of studio execs," Mr. Perry said. "They told me I couldn’t say 'Jesus' on television and nobody would watch it."

    Just like his 2005 movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman generated a lot of terrible reviews from critics, some angry statements from black cultural theorists and writers, and gigantic ticket sales (and even led to an exchange between us and Roger Ebert,) how you react to "House of Payne" seems to depend a lot on who you are and what you expect from a sitcom. If you're Jill Nelson, African-American cultural critic who wrote about Perry in Essence, you think it's insulting to women and not funny. If you're the kind of person who writes on the IMDb discussion boards, you either think it's a shameless exploitation of offensive black stereotypes, or you think it depicts important truths about black American families. Or you're just mad that it replaced "Girlfriends" in its time slot.

    Either way, enough people who watch TV and buy movie and theater tickets love Tyler Perry, and helped him move off the "chitlin' circuit" to reach a national audience. A lot of people (maybe especially a lot of white people) may not like or understand his style, but he's already shooting a second comedy series called "Meet the Browns", shooting a talk show, two new movies, and is making plans for his own TV network.

    Personally, I think the mainstream critical responses to Tyler Perry's productions really demonstrate how far removed those critics are from his core audience. The Times article refers to Niyi Coker Jr., a professor of theater and media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:

    Perry’s work was filling a void in many mediums. "It’s not sophisticated or theatrical in the Western context," he said, but it strikes a deep chord with Mr. Perry’s audience, which does not see their stories in many places.

    It's also interesting to see the creative ways a TV network like TBS markets to an audience that they know is out there and that they want a piece of: they're running a contest on the "House of Payne" website where you can win $25,000 for your church and a trip on a Sheridan Gospel Network cruise. Mm-hmm. How often do you see mainstream secular TV networks offering a donation to a church as an incentive to viewers?

    May 30, 2007

    Immigrants in NYC

    NYC locksmiths

    The NYT has a great feature today on how the immigration legislation now in Congress, the first major new legislation in 40 years that might actually pass, will affect the social fabric of New York City.

    Among urban areas with high populations of immigrants, New York has an especially high ratio of legal to illegal immigrants, and a large majority (72%) of those immigrants come to the city to be reunited with family. Since the new legislation would value education and marketable skills over family members already in the country, it will have an especially big impact on cities like New York.

    A couple of the families interviewed for the article really show how much the city needs the highly motivated people who come here looking for a better life. Jamal Hussain, 26, is a Bangladesh-born owner of a deli at Delancey and Allen streets. He got loans from family members to open his business four years ago. He says, "'I’m a hard worker, motivated.' said Mr. Hussain, who has repaid the loans, married, had a baby, and bought a house in the Bronx. 'Kids are going to school, they’re being doctors, lawyers,' he added, citing a niece who is a graduate student in science at New York University. 'Bottom line, instead of bringing those people already educated from over there, we have the opportunity to be homegrown Ph.D.’s.'"

    The article says that Mexicans have entered the top three biggest immigrant groups in the city, along with Dominicans and Chinese. But of course, New York's growing Mexican population tends to be viewed differently than in other, less diverse parts of the country: "In dense and diverse city neighborhoods, they generally have been absorbed as just one more immigrant group."

    With so many different kinds of people coming to the city, New York even has its own, weirder, more high-brow version of coyotes, which the Times coincidentally also covered today. A guy named Ralph Cucciniello was charged with fraud for swindling illegal Irish immigrants out of $5,000 each for non-existent aid in getting legitimate papers through the Yale Immigration Law Clinic, which he made up.

    He operated the fake law clinic from a desk at the Yale Law library, but has never been affiliated with the school apart from doing some volunteer research for a professor. Over the last two years, he got over 200 immigrants who wanted to be legal to give him millions of dollars, giving them nothing in return. Many of his victims won't talk to prosecutors for fear of getting deported; as one said, "Now I feel like my head has a flashing light on it screaming ‘I’m illegal’."

    May 17, 2007

    NYT Styles section: if you're a woman, your life sucks

    Miserable women in the NYT

    Here are some articles featured in today's woman-hating Styles section in the New York Times:

    "Mr. Right, It Turns Out, Does Not Take Classes"
    This piece examines single women in New York who want to find a man, but are unable to, because no matter how many interests they develop or classes they take or in any other way try to "get out there", there aren't any men to meet. "Where are they?" asked Wendy Hill, who has taken architecture classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has joined singles groups and getaways. "Where do they go?"

    "After Baby, Boss Comes Calling"
    In this article, professional, upper-middle class women who have quit their jobs when they have children struggle to find meaningful work when they decide to start working again. This is by Lisa Belkin, who wrote "The Opt-Out Revolution" a few years ago as part of the Times' trend in covering the plight of wealthy women who can actually decide whether they feel like having a job or not. Anyway, aside from the glaring class issues that articles like this persist in ignoring, the piece points out that more employers are making modest allowances for their workers to have flexible schedules or work part-time, which is good for working mothers and everybody else, too.

    The problem I have with this article is the Note to Readers: "Life’s Work, a column about workplace trends and office culture, which has run most recently in Sunday Business, today moves to Thursday Styles." Yes, workplace issues, as they relate to women, are better suited to the goddamn Styles section.

    "Secret Ingredient: Their Husbands"
    Here we find an article about women who actually are successful entrepreneurs (written about, again, in the Styles section) but the only reason they seem to be getting any ink about their businesses is that their husbands are celebrities. We learn about Mrs. Dustin Hoffman, Mrs. Ron Wood, Mrs. Patrick Dempsey, and Mrs. Prince, and their lines of beauty products and decorative candles that, with the help of inexhaustible personal capital investment and built-in publicity, have been remarkably successful. "The husband’s participation in the promotion is not expected, but if it happens, it’s very nice," says a SVP at Bergdorf Goodman, which stocks many of these wives' products. "There’s no denying the public’s appetite for association with celebrity."

    So let's see what today's Styles section tells women about the reality of their lives:

    1) if you're single in NYC, you'll sign up for Olympic-distance Triathlon training classes out of your desperation to get a man, but forget it, because you'll never get one;

    2) if you're lucky enough to get married and you stop working to have kids, it will be really hard for you to find good work again, and while you're trying to get a job, people will take the challenges you face about as seriously as they take everything else that gets written up in the Styles section;

    3) if you do actually establish a successful business for yourself, it's probably because you're married to someone who is rich and famous, and some significant portion of your success will be attributable to his name recognition.

    Yeah! You've come a long way, baby!

    May 7, 2007

    NYC: raiding Hell's Kitchen

    Poseidon Bakery pastry

    The 34th Annual Ninth Avenue International Food Festival is almost two weeks away, but today's the day that I'm starting to drool over salacious photos of pastries from Poseidon Bakery in anticipation. It's coming up on May 19-20. One million people show up every year to walk through Hell's Kitchen, from 37th St to 57th St, and stuff their faces with roasted pig flesh, apricot strudel, and gator on a stick. Food photographer Roboppy has many photos of flaky baked Poseidon butteriness on Flickr, and Pop Stand has loads more past festival documentation.

    Street fairs are traditionally a source of revenue for the neighborhood associations that sponsor them, and for the local nonprofits that the associations donate to. But the Post reveals today that the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival brought in almost $240,000 at last year's event, but only about $3,500 made it to local organizations. In 1989, $28,000 was donated.

    But last year's relatively small donation doesn't appear to be entirely the festival organizers' fault. The 11-day San Gennaro Festival, which in 2005 was able to donate $212,000 of revenue from its street fair to local charities, only broke even in 2006. Expenses have gone way up, and the Ninth Avenue Festival pays more for things like insurance than San Gennaro does, which hardly makes sense since San Gennaro is 9 days longer. Ninth Avenue Association President (and, I think, owner of Poseidon Bakery) Lillian Fable complained that the $48,000 permit fee collected by the city doesn't allow for any surplus revenue to be donated.

    Since the city probably isn't going to give up any of the $1.5 million it takes in every year from street festival permits, we can all try to do our part by eating at least 5 times as much gaucho-grilled meat than we did last year. Or if you're interested in donating more directly to local organizations, just write them a check. Hartley House, Fountain House, and Housing Conservation Coordinators are good ones.

    April 23, 2007

    What happens to couples who propose via Jumbotron?

    Real Wedding Crashers on NBC

    They decide to get a free honeymoon by sabotaging their own wedding and broadcasting it all on national television.

    NBC's new unfunny show "The Real Wedding Crashers" starts tonight, and follows the wedding preparations and ceremony of Jonnie and Derek, who got engaged on the scoreboard at a University of Las Vegas basketball game. These people apparently have such hatred for their families and friends that they not only make them go through all the hassle and expense of a conventional mass-produced wedding, but also sign on with a television production company and a group of actors who cause unsuspecting members of the wedding party to ruin dresses, drop cakes, and generally be mortified.

    Professional television loather Tom Shales at the Washington Post really goes to town on this one: "Right off, one wonders how the producers found enough couples willing to spoil their weddings for the sake of a cheap television show's even cheaper gags. The idea is that for years they'll sit back and laugh at all the carefully engineered mayhem and shocked looks on the faces of guests and members of the wedding party. More likely, if the marriage lasts longer than a few months, both parties will come to regret the fact that they turned what is supposed to be a romantic and momentous event into a vulgar farce."

    Alessandra Stanley points out that couples' attempts to liven up a cookie-cutter wedding by playing pranks on their friends only emphasizes how bland and impersonal most weddings actually are. She says, "For many guests a wedding is less a joy than an ordeal, something to get through, like PBS pledge drives or Lyme disease." Most of the people I know, when talking about the upcoming wedding season, talk about it as something to be suffered through, and in terms of how much vacation time and money all those weddings will eat up. The last thing you want to deal with is some damn actor-cop threatening to arrest you for smoking an illegal Cuban cigar at the bachelor party.

    By the way, shouldn't this show be on Fox or the CW or something? Tom Shales notes that NBC recently got its worst week of primetime ratings ever. Shows like this are not going to improve anything. If everybody would start watching "30 Rock", we'd all be better off.

    April 17, 2007

    The inevitable post-tragedy gun control debate

    Bush at VA Tech Convocation

    You might think that the days immediately after a horrible shooting spree seems like the most strategic time to raise the issue of gun control and try to make some real policy changes. Advocates for greater gun control have tried in the past, and generally failed (with the notable exception of Jim Brady.)

    At today's convocation at Virginia Tech, President Bush spoke mostly about the raw emotions everybody is feeling: "On this terrible day of mourning, it's hard to imagine a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal, but such a day will come. And when it does, you will always remember the friends and teachers who were lost yesterday, and the time you shared with them, and the lives that they hoped to lead."

    But his staff are already fending off suggestions that a different gun policy might prevent shootings like this from happening in the first place. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says, "We understand that there's going to be and there has been an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun control policy. Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation. Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community."

    And you can bet that Second Amendment advocates are going to use this shooting as an example of why we'd all be more secure with greater access to guns, not less. After all, the reasoning goes, if some of the students in those classrooms had guns on them, they might have been able to take the shooter out before he killed so many people.

    Boing Boing has coverage of the predictable debate. And as they point out, "No matter which side of the gun debate you're on, one thing is obvious: anyone who is capable of and intent on killing 32 innocent fellow human beings will do so regardless of law. Homicidal maniacs can always be counted on to violate the boundaries set forth by others who want to promote a civil, peaceful society."

    April 3, 2007

    Baby names: when governments intervene

    Nevaeh graph

    Here in America, we proudly name our babies whatever the hell we want to. Case in point: the growing popularity of Nevaeh as a name for girls. Emily and Jacob may have been the most popular names for the last several years (2002 through 2005, at least) but if you want to name your kid Bacardi, you just go right ahead.

    Swedes do not share these freedoms. A couple has been trying to get the National Tax Board to allow them to name their baby daughter Metallica, with no success. Not only will they not permit a Swedish citizen to have such a hard-rocking name, they called it "ugly". The baby's mother says Metallica (which is actually quite a melodious and lovely name) suits her daughter: "She's decisive and she knows what she wants."

    Though at least one family in Idaho has named their child Metallica, the name doesn't show up on the cool multi-decade Baby Name Wizard application (since it's not in the top 1000 most popular U.S. names); Lars reached a high rank of 797 in the 1960's.

    The Social Security Administration hasn't yet revealed the top names for 2006, but Laura Wattenburg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, organized a baby name pool to see what the collective wisdom has to say:

    Top prediction for a name falling out of favor: Madison.
    Top prediction for a name soaring in popularity: Addison.

    Hm, maybe we need some government regulation after all.

    March 20, 2007

    Coors Light asks, why wait till 5:00 to start drinking?

    It's 4:53! Start drinking!

    In a brilliant advertising campaign combining interactive online media and a slack work ethic, Coors is planning to introduce its new Silver Bullet Express Beer Train to Happy Hour. Which now starts at 4:53.

    In creating these ads, Coors noticed that their target consumers, men ages 21-34, do almost all of their online reading at work, and between 3 and 6. Since these guys have already indicated their feelings on the relative importance of doing their jobs late in the workday and, say, reading, the strategy for selling beer to them pretty much designs itself. Regular readers are practically begging Coors Light to launch a speeding beer train across their screens at 4:53 PM local time, signalling that it really is OK for them to have completely given up on productivity for the day, because it's already happy hour!

    Avenue A/Razorfish, the agency that designed the 4:53 online beer train, says the ads will also include a Happy Hour Countdown clock. The train and clock will presumably trigger a Pavlovian response in industrious drinker-workers, and give them enough time to get out of the office, down to a bar, and actually be pouring a Coors Light down their gullets by 5:00.

    "It’s getting back to the roots, back to a brand promise of cold refreshment," says a VP at Draft FCB, the agency that designed the TV ads that will tie-in with the 4:53 train. Solid American roots of cold refreshment and a 7-minute shorter workday.

    March 19, 2007

    How to not get scammed

    In the aggressively unfunny "Funny Pages" section of yesterday's NY Times Magazine was a great True-Life Tale from Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's legitimately funny weekend quiz show, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me".

    In the story, Sagal recounts a learning experience from his younger days, when an older respected writer friend gave him a crisp, new $100 bill to use for anything he needed to help his writing. Within seconds of dropping off the writer friend at the airport, he's already given 40% of it to a con artist.

    It's a charming and self-deprecating story about how stupid he felt to not only have been duped by a sort-of attractive woman with a fake story (her invisible car broke down, she didn't have enough cash for a tow truck and the cops were about to ticket her if she didn't move her car), but to have continued playing along even after he knew she was lying: "I probably knew she was lying as soon as she got into my car. But by that point, it had become far easier to continue playing along than to call the whole thing off. She had worked so hard on her scheme that it seemed cruel to disappoint her. And of course, by suddenly expressing doubt, I would be admitting that I had been stupid enough to believe her to that point."

    These kinds of scams seem to be incredibly common (other examples I've heard include "my car's brakes don't work and I need $19 to get a cab home" and the slightly more complex "I'm outside with two wardrobes and I lost my keys and need $20 to get a cab to my mother's apartment to get the extra set") and intelligent people sometimes fall for them. So if you are approached by someone asking for cash for some implausible emergency situation, you can do one of the following:

    1) Blow them off;

    2) Get some dark satisfaction out of playing along with their scam, but offering them the actual service they say they are in need of instead of money. Offer to call a cab or tow truck yourself and pay the driver directly, drive them to their mom's apartment, etc. This won't earn you any good karma, but will give the sick pleasure of watching the con artist's whole story disintegrate before your very eyes; or

    3) If you happen to have some meth or gin in your pocket, or if you are a civic-minded prostitute, just skip the extra transaction and give the con artist what you both know they're really after.

    If you want to get in on the other side, a good place to start is Simon Lovell's How to Cheat at Everything, a funny and practical guide to hustling.

    [tx adm]

    March 13, 2007

    Most irritating restaurant in NYC closed for health code violations

    Coffee Shop closed

    In what is surely the best unintended consequence of the KFC/Taco Bell rats video, Union Square restaurant Coffee Shop, that even the New York Times is savvy enough to call "once-hip", has been closed for scoring 120 points in Health Department violations.

    The restaurant, where you've probably seen the outside seating area infested with vermin incredibly snotty looking scenester-types every time the temperature rises above 45 degrees, got closed last Wednesday, failed a follow-up inspection on Friday, and as of yesterday, was still closed. Heh.

    And check out these quotes from the Times article. The writer obviously hates this restaurant as much as I do:

    "People are pretty shocked," said Nicole Watts, who stood outside the restaurant yesterday afternoon wearing large sunglasses, a wool shawl and cowboy boots. She had made plans to meet a makeup artist there at 3 p.m. "It’s a meeting about the video we’re shooting for my jewelry line," she said.

    "I’ve seen a lot of people walk up and read the signs in the window," Ms. Watts added. "People are pretty shocked."

    Sean Thomas, tall, blond and ruddy, and wearing a colorful scarf tied jauntily around his neck, said he had gone to the Coffee Shop each time he visited from London, where he owns a clothing company called White Stuff (slogan: "Lovely Clothes for Lovely People"). "To be honest, I’ve had some good food here and I’ve had some bad food," he said. "I’ve had great margaritas here. It’s just a fun, stylish, sort of buzzy place."

    [This next part is just genius] Mr. Thomas turned on his heel and left with his two female companions in search of another place to have lunch. Mike Bael, a squat man with frizzy hair in a ponytail, was standing nearby and said: "I’ve always found it to be an incredibly snobbish place. If you look like that guy, you get served fine. My wife and I always get stuck in the back near a bunch of loud families and have to wait forever to get our order taken. The food’s O.K. One time we looked around and all the people with scarves and British accents were in the front."

    The health violations were all for improper refrigeration of food; no sign of rodent infestation. Just far too many tall, blond people with scarves and British accents.

    March 2, 2007

    Documentation of future dead celebrity presence

    Anna Nicole Smith's future burial site

    This strange world we live in seems to have reached a new level of meta-weirdness. Fom earlier this week: tourists taking pictures of themselves at the cemetery plot where Anna Nicole Smith is going to be buried.

    February 28, 2007

    New York Times: The math club president in the cheerleaders' locker room +

    New York Times does Penthouse

    Frank Bruni's review of the steakhouse in the Penthouse Executive Club is surely rocketing its way up the Times' "Most Popular Articles" list. I hardly know what to say about this thing, except that it's totally bewildering, and very funny.

    When the Times runs an article about a somewhat distasteful, low-brow topic like strip clubs, they often assume a posture of the amused outsider, observing the unwashed masses and their unrefined pursuits (like the article about other papers' journalists, who often *gasp* go out drinking together after work!) When their restaurant reviewer goes to a strip club to eat their legendarily delicious steaks, he does so only while stressing how out of place he feels, how much he is really, honestly there for the steak, and intentionally comes off like a dork pushing his wire-frame glasses back up his nose. Even in the part when the strippers pour a buttery nipple cocktail and Reddi-Wip down his throat.

    My favorite part is his exchange with a woman who is I guess is his waitress or hostess, who sits down with him and his friends at their table.

    She introduced herself. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her name correctly.

    "Mahogany?" I said.

    "Yes," she purred.

    I was getting my bearings. "Mahogany," I asked, "do you know where you’re going to?"

    She didn’t miss a beat, noting the reference, summoning the singer, and moving on to another of the dreamgirl’s hits. "I’m ... coming ... out!" she sang, waving her arms, wiggling her hips. Mahogany and I would get along just fine.

    Haha! Funny, but maybe trying a little too hard to show how down with the strippers Frank Bruni can be, and how he totally doesn't objectify these women but actually views them as intelligent and very, very friendly human beings. He even chats with another stripper about her cellphone! Plus, did he mention he really loved the steak?

    Funny article, if painfully self-conscious, like the Times was trying to publish something "fun" that might be found in New York magazine, but ended up with something more like what you'd read in Stuff. There's also an interactive slideshow that features equal parts steak and tits. Even though Bruni swears that he and his friends weren't interested in the human flesh on display, somebody on the payroll clearly picked up on it.

    UPDATE: Of course, all this makes a lot more sense when you take into account that Frank Bruni is gay. Of course! A group of gay guys eating steak "ecstatically" at Penthouse Executive Club on Valentine's Day with the Times picking up the tab makes the whole story so much better. I can't believe I didn't pick up on this right away, but at least Mahogany seems like she did.

    February 16, 2007

    Lazy interjections

    Today's Slate has a piece on the rise of interjections as a substitution for actual words in speech, on blogs and other websites, and in actual respectable newspapers. The clip above shows a textbook use of the "awwa!", or in more linguistic notation, "aww/uh!", an interjection used to express delight in the adorableness of something that is popular among teenage girls and, in written form, LiveJournalers.

    The article provides a good overview of interjections of years past, such as "duh!", "not!", and "ka-ching!", which all seem to have outlived their socially acceptability in speech and writing. "Meh" and "feh" are more recent examples that maybe demonstrate the growing apathy and noncommital attitude of youth culture.

    Other more generic interjections that are used by all ages are the interesting ones, in my opinion. "Ha", "haha!", and "HAHAHAHAHAAAA!" are unoriginal, yet I never get tired of them or feel false when I write them. While "lol" or "rotfl" or "lmao" suggest a teenage MySpace user, a simple "haha" is universal and not attached to any particular age group or other demographic identifer. Like Ben Yagoda, the author of the Slate piece, I feel proud when I get a written "haha!" as a response to a joke.

    But the interjection that is probably most common in speech, and most grating in writing, is "um". Right now I formally apologize for any usage of the interjection "um" in anything I have ever written. As Ben Yagoda wrote, "um" has "been flagrantly overused by feature writers and columnists to signal an impending attempt at irony or humor; the maneuver is now well beyond cliché, somewhere in the neighborhood of desperation." Writers at newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times and the Toronto Sun use "um" to indicate that they are saying something marginally off-color or making a lame joke ("Watch for Justin Timberlake pairing up with someone in a duet, which often can be quite, um, revealing").

    If you have written a joke that isn't funny enough for your readers to notice that it's a joke without preceding it with an "um", it probably isn't a good joke.

    If the best we can do these days to add some spice to our writing is "um" and "meh", then I think we have no choice but to revive some of the colorful interjections of yore that never find their way into published writing anymore. Such as "darn tootin'".

    February 12, 2007

    NYT headlines

    Yesterday's New York Times had an article on the popular recreational usage of Viagra among Spanish men, with a surprisingly Post-y headline:

    "Spain Says Adiós Siesta and Hola Viagra"

    Some old favorite Post headlines celebrating our Spanish-speaking brethren include a culturally sensitive piece on Bloomberg's efforts to learn Spanish:

    Latin Lover

    And the questionable announcement of Bill Richardson's plans to run for President:

    NM Governor Throws Sombrero Into Ring.

    Nothing wrong with using a few universally familiar Spanish words in a headline, but the subject matter of the Times article makes it sound sort of like an ad in the back of a magazine guaranteeing the erotic delights of spanish fly. The piece discusses how cultural shifts have affected the sexual habits of all those fiery, macho Spaniards, leading to increased popularity of... ok, I don't know if they made this up, but they claim that Spanish people call it "sexo azul":

    The quest for Viagra was apparent on a recent day at a packed disco in Chueca, a bohemian district of Madrid, where a group of young men said they took Viagra because it increased sexual confidence. "No one wants to admit it, but everyone is taking it," said Santiago, a 32-year-old travel agent.

    "We used to have a siesta, to sleep all afternoon, to eat well," said a spokeswoman for Pfizer. "But now we have become a fast-food nation where everyone is stressed out, and this is not good for male sexual performance."

    Pfizer says it sold nearly one million boxes of Viagra in Spain last year, the equivalent of one box for every 17 men 18 and older. Globally, Pfizer earned $1.66 billion from Viagra sales in 2006.

    And how about the señoritas? Turns out they're a bunch of insatiable hot tamales, too.

    One such woman is Carmen, a chic, twice-divorced 45-year-old information technology executive and Sophia Loren look-alike, who complains that her sexual ardor intimidates most Spanish men. Frustrated by her boyfriend’s sexual performance, Carmen insisted that he take Viagra, which he obtained by making a fake prescription on his home computer.

    The Viagra worked, she says, but she decided anyway to leave her boyfriend, an urbane 55-year-old psychologist, for a 32-year-old unemployed student athlete.

    "Viagra is not the solution many Spaniards think it is," said Carmen. "I came to realize that the problem wasn’t my boyfriend’s sexual prowess. The problem was him." Now, she added, "I have sex six times a day, but I do miss going to the opera."

    Whoa. Or, ¡Whoa!

    February 9, 2007

    Friday afternoon reading: Dogfighting championships

    Jack, Russian volkodav

    The best Times articles are often the non-news features about some weird practice going on out in the world somewhere that has no bearing whatsoever on life as we know it. Today we've got the illegal but popular sport Russian dog fighting; lots of crazy, bloody details that show what a bizarre place Russia is these days.

    The sport involves massive, thick-headed breeds, including Central Asian shepherd dogs and Caucasian ovcharka, bred by livestock herders across the continent to defend sheep and cattle in the mountains and on the steppe. Collectively the dogs are called volkodavs, the wolf-killers.

    While most of the day’s more than 10 matches drew little blood, this one was different. Jack and Sarbai tore each other’s mouths with the first bites. Blood flowed, staining the dogs’ faces and flanks.

    Between Sarbai and Jack’s rounds, other dogs fought. One was called Koba, the nickname used by Stalin. He won.

    Another was named Khattab, after a Jordanian-born terrorist who fought in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya before Russia’s intelligence service killed him with a poison-soaked letter in 2002. (!!!) He won, too, in the junior middleweight class, extending his undefeated record to eight wins.

    Each fight lasts until one dog shows fear or pain — by dropping its tail, squeaking, whimpering, refusing to fight or snapping its jaws defensively, all grounds for instant disqualification. There is no scoring. There are only winners and losers or, in fights that continue for three rounds without an animal yielding, draws.

    Many dogfights in Russia are said to be tainted, with steroid-swelled dogs, or animals smeared with wolf fat to confuse or intimidate their foes, or dogs’ mouths injected with Novocain to make them fight without hesitation.

    And a wonderful quote that echoes Borat's "we say in Kazakhstan that horse is like man" speech:

    "The dogs teach us," he said. "You cannot look at a dog and tell who it is. The dog is on the inside, not on the outside. It is in his spirit."

    "It is the same with people," he added, and lifted his glass.

    February 6, 2007

    Gavin Newsom goes to rehab

    Gavin Newsom repents

    You knew this was coming.

    After Thursday's announcement that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with his campaign manager (and close friend)'s wife, he has finally accepted that the best way to apologize for his indiscretion and do some soul-searching about his behavior is to go to rehab. For alcohol.

    "Upon reflection with friends and family this weekend, I have come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life," he said in a statement. "I take full responsibility for my personal mistakes and my problems with alcohol are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment."

    Not an excuse, but a great distraction, right Gavin? Welcome to the club! Mark Foley will be contacting you soon with your Rehab Redemption membership card, which includes one (1) free public use of any relevant ethnic slur against Alex Tourk.

    Good call, Cushie! [tx ADM]

    February 4, 2007

    G.M.'s Very Bizarre Superbowl Ad

    This year's Super Bowl commercials had the usual winners and losers, but the strangest had to be G.M.'s spot highlighting the company's 100,000 mile warranty.

    You can watch the spot above, but in brief: a robot on the G.M. assembly line drops a bolt, to the horror of everyone, and is escorted out of the factory. With no direction, no prospects, and presumably no union representation, he engages in self-destructive behavior, works various minimum wage jobs, and finally throws himself off a bridge. But suddenly - he wakes up! It was all a dream, brought on by the fear of not meeting G.M.'s high quality standards. The commercial ends with a voiceover: "The G.M. 100,000 mile warranty - it's got everyone at G.M. obsessed with quality."

    No shit. Even putting aside the crappy quality of G.M.'s products, the company is in a lot of trouble. Like the rest of the domestic auto industry, G.M. has been hemorrhaging money and jobs for the past ten years. The company lost more than $10 billion in 2005 alone. In January, the trade publication Automotive News officially stopped using "The Big Three" as shorthand for G.M., Ford and Chrysler and is instead referring to them as "The Detroit Three." (Since Toyota is now the third largest company in domestic auto sales, the editors didn't want to cause confusion.) And last week, the company announced that it will be reducing production over the next two years on the heels of reports that January 2007 sales were down 17%.

    G.M. is the largest private purchaser of health care coverage in the country, and its benefits have always been considered the "Cadillac" of employer-sponsored plans. But in addition to lay-offs, last spring G.M. started offering buyouts to more than 100,000 of its workers - as long as they agreed to give up their right to the continued health benefits that they had earned. According to the New York Times, the response was similar in many ways to our robot friend's: "The prospect of losing General Motors health coverage can be terrifying for workers who went straight from high school into factory jobs and have few good prospects for employment beyond the assembly line."

    I'd say it's not just the robots at G.M. who are pretty worried right now.

    Update: Apparently, I'm not the only one who had this reaction. According to Reuters, a UCLA study of viewers' brain scans while watching Super Bowl ads showed:

    "Among the top anxiety-producing ads...was one for General Motors aimed at drawing attention to the automaker's 100,000 mile warranty. The ad features a robot working on the line at an assembly plant until he drops a screw forcing the line to shut down. Angry workers kick the robot off the line, rendering the robot jobless...'That one got people's attention. But they did not feel good about the message. It produced big spikes of anxiety and perhaps ... feelings of economic insecurity,' [researcher Dr. Josh] Freedman said."

    [tx ADM]

    January 31, 2007

    Celebrity rehab: one-stop redemption shopping

    Mark Foley, alcoholic

    The Guardian has an essay today chronicling our favorite trend of 2006: celebrities checking into rehab to try to redeem themselves when they get busted for doing something idiotic or illegal that doesn't actually have anything to do with addiction.

    So far we've got:

    Mel Gibson
    Screw-up: Anti-semitic tirade, resisting arrest, "sugar tits"
    Went to rehab for: Alcoholism

    Mark Foley
    Screw-up: Dirty IMing with teenage Congressional pages, probably illicit sex with same
    Went to rehab for: Alcoholism

    Isaiah Washington
    Screw-up: Fighting with co-stars, using homophobic slur
    Went to rehab for: some unidentified problem, possibly anger management?

    And let's not forget old favorite Jim McGreevey
    Screw-up: putting his secret boyfriend on the state payroll in a made-up job that he wasn't qualified for
    Went to a "treatment center" for: an "addiction to being adored by strangers", whatever that is.

    And this Guardian piece alerted me to two others.

    Jade Goody, from the UK's recently ended Big Brother season
    Screw-up: racist comments about another contestant, Shilpa Shetty--called her "Shilpa Poppadom" and "Shilpa Fuckawallah" and was generally an odious tv-famous moron
    Went to rehab for: "stress and depression", hopefully at the same made-up rehab clinic that Isaiah Washington is at

    The essay also claims an arguable trendsetting example, from way back in 2002:

    Winona Ryder
    Screw-up: shoplifting, denial of shoplifting despite being recorded shoplifting on store camera
    Went to rehab for: actually was sentenced to get counseling instead of getting jail time

    If only Robert Downey, Jr. had been so lucky.

    But, as the essayist says, "the question remains: how much of an atonement is it when you admit yourself and you're not even really addicted to anything?" Checking yourself into rehab as a self-created punishment for unrelated sins doesn't do anything to solve your real problem (racism, pedophilia, sticky fingers, etc.) and comes off as a pathetic attempt to make the public feel sorry for you. No one had any hard feelings toward Winona, whose crime probably only made more people feel like they could relate to her (especially teenage girls, who love to shoplift), but Mel and the rest of these guys don't seem to have anyone fooled.

    January 19, 2007

    The People's Paper

    Finally, a New York Times lifestyle story just for me!

    Did you know that there are literally tens of New Yorkers out there facing a heartbreaking ordeal? They can't get the high-end appliances in their weekend homes serviced, because all the bumpkins in upstate New York and Vermont shop at Sears!

    Oh, the tragedy of installing a "luxury Australian-made Regency VSA oven" and not being able to get the hinges fixed! The horror of "spending about $1,000 [to cajole] Sub-Zero into sending a repairman on the 40-minute drive from Albany!" And what if your vacation home is on Fire Island? Did you know they don't even have cars there?!

    Sadly, many of these folks are now turning to sub-par brands like KitchenAid and G.E. (which seem, curiously, to not break down as frequently). I mean, why even bother being an "executive vice president for luxury real estate sales" or a "vice president at the Corcoran Group real estate company" if you have to keep your Berkshire pork cold under a fucking block of ice in the backyard?

    Oh, boohoo. Relevance aside, this article isn't even interesting. Appliance repair? How did this pitch even make the first editorial cut?

    Congratulations, New York Times, for the most useless news article of 2007 so far! And to think I had my money on New York Magazine.

    January 18, 2007

    What you say about his company! Is what you say about society!

    knights of prosperity!

    Most TV shows that want to be successful try to pick soundtrack music that suggests a certain fashionable coolness that will appeal to today's young generation of trend-setters. You've got Neko Case getting played on Veronica Mars and some po-faced acoustic guy named Josh Kelley showing up on Smallville.

    Most shows decide not to include, for example, Rush on their soundtrack, because doing so would label your show as being hopelessly lame and out of touch with key marketing demographics.

    But for ABC's wonderful new Knights of Prosperity? No problem.

    You can see Eugene Gerkin, Rockefeller Butts, and Gary Subramaniam jamming to "Tom Sawyer" in the first minute and a half of last night's episode (the 1/17/07 one) on the ABC website. [You probably have to sit through an ad, but it's worth it.]

    January 16, 2007

    Is Fat The New Black?

    Jennifer Hudson

    There is a time-honored tradition at televised awards ceremonies of cutting to appropriate racial and gendered reaction shots during winner's speeches. For instance, when a lady of a certain age wins an award, we see a quick shot of Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep applauding. When a black person wins, we cut to Lou Gossett, Jr.

    As Hollywood gathered to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last night - I'm sorry, the Golden Globes - the tradition continued. When Jennifer Hudson won her Best Supporting Actress Award, it was only natural that the cameras would immediately cut to - Ugly Betty's America Ferrera.

    hot America Ferrera

    Congratulations, Jennifer Hudson! You've moved beyond the world of racial typecasting! Just like in Dreamgirls, fat and plain cut across all barriers, even if you've got pipes.

    Sidenote: Since we have a deep love for America Ferrera - especially after her charming acceptance speech - I should mention that for "ugly fat girls", both she and Jennifer Hudson were smokin' last night.

    Whereas Beyonce -

    Vegas beyonce

    Well, she mostly looked like a Solid Gold dancer.

    January 9, 2007

    CES vs. Macworld

    The latest products from Apple were just announced at Macworld, and they're as sleek and gorgeous as you would expect. And functional! The iPhone combines phone, iPod, and PDA, and appears to automatically switch functions when you want it to by reading your mind.

    Take a look at the new hotly anticipated iPhone, which as ADM says, looks like something out of Minority Report.


    Lots more pictures.

    Meanwhile, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, the rest of the world is unveiling some nice new stuff, and also some clunky, unstylish pieces of crap. A photo of the VenMill Industries "Skip-Away", courtesy of Wired.

    Skip-Away, unbelievably hideous

    The "Skip-Away" is apparently supposed to fix your CDs so they don't skip, but the title also serves as a warning of what you should do to get away from this hideous thing "quickly, or the ugly may rub off on you," as one commenter puts it.

    Perhaps inspired by my favorite of the John Hodgman Get A Mac commercials ("I have some very cool apps. Yeah, calculator. Clock.") non-Apple electronics companies displayed bold new innovations such as a CD player and a clock radio at CES.

    Way to go, guys! How about getting a reel-to-reel tape deck into next year's show?

    December 22, 2006

    Rebranding Christmas

    Xmas logos

    As embedded in American tradition as Christmas is, it isn't exactly the hippest thing going in our cultural landscape. Saying Christmas is your favorite holiday if you're not 8 years old is obvious and white-bread, and nowhere near as cool as saying Halloween or Chinese New Year.

    Time for rebranding! Just because Christmas is inherently associated with small children and tacky commercialism and your extended family is no reason why its tired image can't be made into something sleek and modern by a multinational design firm, who are clearly kidding, but got the attention of the New York Times anyway.

    In conjunction with Studio 360*, the NPR show produced by WNYC and Public Radio International, a design firm came up with some ideas for Christmas 2.0. The group that formed for this project was “kind of like the Iraq Study Group,” according to Kurt Anderson, who hosts Studio 360. “It sounds shocking and overcommercial and ludicrous,” conceded Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram (are they devil worshippers trying to kill Christmas with their diabolical trendiness?! Clearly they are) “but we actually see this as a way to take the commercialization, which is inevitable and irreversible, and turn it to good.”

    It's mostly a joke, and some of it isn't especially good, but they have a few funny ideas too. They want to create a new domain ".mas", as in "x.mas", and let stores buy new websites to promote holiday shopping for their crap. And my favorite: "In the place of red and green would be various almost-indistinguishable shades of x.mas white, like Yule Neutral, Shopping Frosted and Dawkins Blank (named for Richard Dawkins, the biologist and outspoken atheist)."

    As far as the marginal religious significance that Christmas still holds in our culture, or the affection that people have for the traditional red and green holly jolly Christmas images, the designers don't want to get involved. “We weren’t hired as theologians or social engineers,” Beirut said, before tilting his head and adding, “Actually, come to think of it, we weren’t hired at all.”

    * ADM notes that we now have an NPR show called Studio 360, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, and Anderson Cooper 360. Enough already.

    December 14, 2006

    You are no longer responsible for getting speeding tickets: it's your sign's fault

    speeding ticket

    In a new study comparing drviers' records with their astrological sign, a Canadian (of course) insurance quote company has found, incredibly, that your star sign is a better predictor of how many tickets and accidents you will get than your age or what postal code you live in.

    "I was absolutely shocked by the results," said company president Lee Romanov. "I wasn't believing in it before, but I would think twice before getting into a car with an Aries."

    The report surveyed the records of 100,000 North American drivers over 6 years. It's called Car Carma, and identifies Pisces as the worst sign for tickets, and Libra the worst for accidents (Romanov says this is because they are too busy being "indecisive" and "seeking driver approval" to watch where they're going), with Geminis and Leos the best, respectively (Leos have to be the best, she says, because of their "huge egos").

    Now hold the phone, lady. Amy's Robot may be a very small sample size, but the incidence of tickets and accidents from this contributor (Libra) as compared to that of other contributors (both Leos)--well, there's just no contest. A certain Leo I know had to make a trip to the impound lot in Greenpoint not so long ago to pick up the car that was seized due to an abundance of unpaid tickets (see illustration above), while this Libra has gotten only one (1) speeding ticket in her entire life, and that was only because the New Hampshire highway system had sneakily changed speed limits while she was away at college. There's a similar gap in each sign's accident records, too.

    I urge my fellow Libras to follow my lead in combatting our astrological predisposition toward getting busted for speeding, or for getting into terrible, life-altering accidents, like Libras Mark Hamill and Montgomery Clift both did: don't own a car, and mooch rides off your Leo friends. You know, the ones with huge egos.

    October 23, 2006

    Weird Al still has it

    If you grew up in the '80's and listened to music, you knew all the popular artists and the couple of hit songs they released each year, and you probably liked a few of them. Then there were Weird Al Yankovic's parodies of those same songs, by all the different artists, and even if you didn't love the original, you pretty much had to admit that Weird Al's versions were at least as good or better. His best videos made parodies not only of the original songs, but the whole ridiculous MTV-generated celebrity culture.

    His first singles, "My Bologna" ("My Sharona") and "Another One Rides the Bus" ("Another One Bites the Dust") came out in 1980. His newest album, Straight Outta Lynwood, came out in September, and last week it was in the Top 10 (his highest chart position ever!) His latest single, "White & Nerdy" is hilarious [video]. How has Weird Al lasted all these years, never varying his basic formula, and never wearing out his welcome?

    Slate has a great article about the improbable 25+ year career of Weird Al Yankovic that says everything I have to say about him and his role in popular culture. Weird Al's unique and seemingly everlasting importance in music is best described by Chamillionaire, whose song "Ridin'" he parodies in "White & Nerdy": "It's one thing to go platinum. Where do you go from there? Then Weird Al calls."

    The Boston Globe also did an adoring piece on Weird Al over the weekend, describing him a "sort of cultural Geiger counter."

    Here's one of the most bizarre things on his MySpace page [sound on]: a photo of Weird Al done up as a thoughtful acoustic singer-songwriter:

    Weird Al

    Doesn't this freak you out?

    October 18, 2006

    KFC Knows What You Really Want

    Deliver Us From Evil priests

    Have you seen the ads for KFC's new Cheese and Chicken Mashed Potato Bowls?

    Here's one of them.

    In case you're wondering, the Cheese and Chicken Mashed Potato Bowl is like some unholy 7-layer dip - mashed potatoes, corn, fried chicken, gravy and cheese. In a bowl.

    Oh, KFC. At last you've realized that Americans are nothing but sad little piglets waiting to be slopped. My only regret is that the Cheese and Chicken Mashed Potato Bowl is not yet available in a styrofoam trough.

    October 17, 2006

    Mail order brides stalled by anti-commercial-romance legislation

    Russian mail order brides

    The NY Times today has a pretty standard piece on men who buy wives for themselves through internet "don't call it mail-order" dating/marriage sites. As if not being able to get anyone in your own country to marry you weren't bad enough, these guys are suffering through some added inconveniences at the hands of their own government.

    Congress created the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, or Imbra, in March. The legislation "is intended to give foreign women and the American government more information about the men who seek so-called mail-order brides." In other words, Congress recognized an alarmingly fast rise in reports of abuse from women who came to the US to marry guys they met online. So they made a law that gives these women more information about the criminal record and marital history of their future husbands before they pack their bags and become legally bound to a man who has gone out of his way to find a wife who has no way of knowing any objective information about him. Men must now also provide this information to the government when applying for a fiancée visa. Sounds like a great idea, right?

    Not so, according to the buyers. The customer is always right, and that should extend to spousal transactions, say purchasers of foreign brides. “We should have the right to correspond with, date and marry the person of our choosing,” said David Root, who has been involved with many women from the former Soviet Union in the past decade but has not married any of them. “The government shouldn’t interfere in this.”

    He may have a point--Americans can indeed marry whomever they please. And it's not like they're forcing these women to leave their homes for a lifetime of marriage to a man who is often, let's face it, a total stranger. The man that the NY Times story follows, Adam Weaver, sounds like a nice enough person who was seeking an "old-fashioned girl", and now just wants to marry his Colombian fiancée (she's 17 years younger than he is, does that mean she qualifies as a "girl"?) without a lot of delays.

    But some men who get into foreign marriage services clearly are delusional: there's a hilarious example in Sam Smith, who owns a company called I Love Latins, based in Houston [site not really safe for work]. In explaining the appeal of his service, he says, “It all started with women’s lib. Guys are sick and tired of the North American me, me, me attitude.”

    "Me, me, me", huh? And what kind of attitude is it that compels a wealthy American man to search for another human being on a shopping site using criteria like age, weight, height, religion, and command of English, and then pay thousands of dollars for this probably low-income person from a poor country with few or zero opportunities for a stable life to leave their home and enter into a legally-binding contract with them that allows that person to live legally in the US only if they remain married? That's altruism! Right, Sam Smith?

    Studio 60, the Most Important Television Show Ever in the History of Television

    How important is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? How important? It is so important that this exchange actually happened last night between Matthew Perry's troubled genius sketch comedy writer and a Very Important Journalist, played by Christine Lahti, who is writing a fictional Vanity Fair piece about his barely-fictional show.

    Perry: You've covered presidential campaigns. You've covered wars. What are you writing about a tv show for?

    Lahti: I'm writing about it because what's happened here is important. I think what's happening here is important. I think popular culture in general and this show in particular are important.

    Oh my GOD, Aaron Sorkin, how much more important could this show get?! Tell me! Is it IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO GET STING TO COME OUT AND PLAY HIS LUTE?

    Fuck you, Sorkin. Only 4 episodes in and I'm already sick of you insulting my tv viewing habits and trying to make me feel bad for disliking your pompous show. It's JUST TELEVISION. I'm done with Studio 60, and if you want to talk about it, you can find me over at Wife Swap on Wednesday nights.

    September 28, 2006

    An Itsy-Bitsy Lie

    Earlier this week, a Danbury CT paper reported that Paul Van Valkenburgh, who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" under the name Paul Vance, had died at the age of 68. The A.P. picked up the story and it ran in yesterday's New York Times. You know who was most surprised to read it? Paul Vance, who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

    What makes this story interesting is that it wasn't just some sort of mix-up on the part of the Obit. columnists. Paul Van Valkenburgh (the dead one) had apparently been telling his family for years that he wrote the song. It's one of those perfect lies that you tell at your high school reunion - like that you invented post-its. It's a great exercise in what I'm sure Van Valkenburgh thought was harmless fakery, and his wife and kids believed him.

    Unfortunately, Paul Vance's family also believed it, and understandably freaked out. While the media has withdrawn the original story, Vance is more concerned with the financial ramifications. Two racehorses that he owns were scratched from races yesterday because he was thought to be dead. And as for royalties: “Believe me," he says, "if they think you’re dead, they ain’t going to send the money.”

    P.S. - In this week's NYT "Talk to the Newsroom" feature, obituaries editor Bill McDonald answers reader questions including one that addresses this case. What he doesn't address is that in this instance, the Times apparently didn't do any independent fact-checking.

    September 21, 2006

    Photo op

    Thai fashion student in Bangkok

    The coup in Thailand: a politically confusing pro-democracy military ousting of a democratically-elected (though potentially corrupt) government, or fashion photo shoot opportunity? Both!

    This Bangkok fashion student takes her inspiration from the military's stylish uniforms as they guard the government buildings they raided just last night.

    September 9, 2006

    Japan vs. Brazil

    japanese shoe hat

    An item from Kazuo Takashima's collection, featured the other day Japan's Fashion Week.

    brazil shoe hat

    Katherine Hellmond in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

    original shoe hat

    Both can be traced to Schiaparelli's shoe hat from the 1930s or so.

    September 5, 2006

    West Indian Day Carnival

    West Indian Day festival

    (photo by George K on Flickr)

    Yesterday's annual West Indian-American Day Carnival along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn brought huge crowds, tons of curried goat, rice and peas, and ginger beer, and enough elaborate costumes to keep the lucrative sequin, feather, bead, and face paint industries in the black for another year.

    The parade is New York's biggest cultural event of the year (bigger than the Macy's Thanksgiving parade)--over 3 million people usually attend. It was my first time, and as a friend said, this parade puts all other city street festivals to shame. The costumes are amazing, but the sheer number of people is what really sets it apart. In between the endless formations of women in bikinis and headdresses were lots of tractor-trailers with scaffolding built up to hold several levels of hundreds of partiers and stacks of speakers with chest-cavity-rattling bass, and these trucks were surrounded by thousands of people waving flags and singing and dancing. The Jamaican and the Haitian trucks both looked like they were surrounded by the city's entire population from their respective countries. Great picture of an enthusiastic Jamaican crowd.

    See tons of photos on Flickr.

    The Daily News coverage focused on the positive, featuring quotes from excited people who came from all over to watch the parade. "I love it," said Michelle Stebila, a 28-year-old waitress from Raleigh, N.C., who was visiting the parade - and Big Apple - for the first time. "Now I want to move here. I love the vibe that is here."

    But the Post's article includes a disturbingly long rundown of everybody who got shot or stabbed before and during parade celebrations.

    Courtney Clementson, 23, was shot around 3 a.m. and Jordian Brooks, 11, was struck in the thigh by a stray bullet. Earlier, a 17-year-old boy was shot in the arm and another man was hit by a stray bullet.

    At 4 p.m., a man in his 20s was stabbed in the neck at Nostrand Avenue and Eastern Parkway. Five minutes later, a man was shot in the leg on Troy Avenue. At 6 p.m., a 15-year-old was stabbed after he intervened in a dispute between his brother and the suspect.

    There were cops absolutely everywhere at the parade, but I guess in all the excitement a lot of attacks happen anyway.

    August 24, 2006

    Christian Coalition's state affiliates split off, enraged at new liberal agenda

    The Christian Coalition, which at its height had an active presence in every state of the nation, has lost three state affiliates so far this year--Iowa, Ohio, and most recently Alabama. These departures were precipitated by some focus issues the Coalition has adopted in recent years, which the states perceive as a drift from their core values.

    The traditional, "good" Christian Coalition issues: keeping gay marriage illegal, making abortion illegal, keeping stem cell research from developing.

    The new, "bad" Christian Coalition issues: net neutrality, protecting the environment.

    Well! How dare they work on issues that might actually help people instead of just restricting rights and preventing innovation! Check out this great quote from Chris Long, the leader of the defected Ohio chapter, about the Coalition's recent lobbying for net neutrality: "We were surprised that the national office took such a lead role on such an obscure issue, at a time when marriage protection and stem cell research were being debated."

    Of course, the recent demise of Coalition founder and former leader Ralph Reed's political career might have something to do with their sliding popularity too.

    August 8, 2006

    Iraq, cellphones, and black humor

    Iraqis love their cellphones

    The New York Times explores new depths of dark humor in today's article about the popularity of cellphones in Iraq, and the new and inventive ways Iraqis use them to avoid being killed, or to try to cope with the horror of their daily lives. Giving different phone models nicknames like the Allawi, the Apache, or the Humvee, many kids and adults trade in their old phones for a newer model every few months. As the article says, "It is the relentless violence — which now claims dozens of Iraqis every day — that seems to have fertilized the industry’s growth."

    But the tone of the article is so dark it's hard to tell if it's meant to be funny, or just wry commentary on how precarious life in Iraq is today. This stuff is insane:

    Jabar Satar Salaum, 50, the owner of a cellphone store on a busy street in the middle-class Shiite area of Karada, said he used his phone mostly to tell his wife that he was safe. On the ride to and from work across Baghdad, he said he called every few minutes.

    His sons, Amjad, 17, and Muhammad, 15, said that cellphones were desirable not just because they were cool but also because they provided one of the country’s only safe forms of teenage self-expression. In May, a tennis coach and two of his players were shot to death in Baghdad because they were wearing shorts. Cellphones, in contrast, have attracted little religious outrage.

    That teenage self-expression often takes the form of death-oriented jokes:

    One of the most popular text messages making the rounds appears onscreen with the image of a skeleton. It says, “Your call cannot be completed because the subscriber has been bombed or kidnapped.”

    Iraqis also use their phones to record torture and attacks, or to make jokes about torture and attacks:

    Omar al-Jabouri, who heads the human rights office for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said he often received pictures of men tortured or killed by death squads, many of them taken with the cellphones of witnesses or the victims’ relatives. At bombings, Iraqis are often seen recording the carnage in pictures or short videos...

    ...A popular video captures young men trying to decapitate a victim with a fake, dull knife and failing.

    In case readers don't get these hilarious jokes, an Iraqi teenager helpfully explains the irony for us.

    Everyone seems to enjoy laughing at Mr. Hussein. His propaganda has literally become a joke: a 2003 broadcast from Iraq’s state-run station, just before the war, shows a gaggle of soldiers with machine guns dancing and singing along with Khasim al-Sultan, an Iraqi pop star. “If you want the stars, we will reach out for the stars,” the men sing. “We will wipe America from the map!”

    Firas al-Taie, 19, after showing the clip, laughed and tried to explain why Iraqis find the segment entertaining. “It’s not matching the reality,” he said, in halting English. “They said this thing and then something else happened.”

    Hahaha! They said they would wipe America from the map, and now they're the ones being wiped from the map!

    As a sociologist at Baghdad University says, “In Iraq, there is such an accumulation of frustration. If an Iraqi does not embrace humor in his life, he’s finished.”

    Sadly, a lot of Iraqis with great senses of humor are finished, too.

    July 26, 2006

    Tits for Peace!

    We Love Beirut, too

    Inspired by this woman's ingenious strategy at a recent demonstration in Prague protesting Israel's military activity in Lebanon, we've been thinking about how to best use some of the world's most impressive racks to bring peace to the Middle East. Let's embrace our common humanity here, people!

    So we have designed some politically provocative leaflets to be dropped across the warzones in both Israel and Lebanon, featuring one of our favorite half-Lebanese celebrities*, Salma Hayek.

    Salma Hayek leaflet

    Of course, this strategy could work in many troubled parts of the world. Does anyone know any busty Somalians?

    * the other one is Shakira

    July 18, 2006

    2006 TUSH

    It's mid-July, and you know what that means. Time to start paying attention to the songs playing in Old Navy, in delis, at the gym, and on Jeep stereos to identify that one song that has seeped into your unconscious to become our nation's Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit!

    So what songs have we been hearing again and again this summer? In May, there was still a lot of treacly whine-rock floating around, and everybody in the world heard that damn "Bad Day" one million times. But one of the most important qualities of a true TUSH, apart from its total ubiquity, is that is has to be an upbeat, positive, fun song that you (or a teenage version of you) could conceivably dance to. The prime example of the TUSH is probably "La Macarena" from 1996, and also "Crazy in Love" from 2003.

    Many music fans were hoping that "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley would achieve TUSH-level widespread popularity. During the 15 seconds that I hear KTU every morning when my alarm goes off I sometimes hear "Crazy", and many people have seen it performed on the MTV Movie Awards and Conan. And it's still at #2 on the Billboard charts. But ubiquitous? Sadly, I don't think so.

    I've been hearing a lot about this new Nelly Furtado "Promiscuous" song, which appears to be gaining some popularity. But here's the thing: I hated this song about one minute into the video with its unsuccessful attempts to look sexy by Ms. Furtado, who looks to me like she's trying too hard. And please, "Promiscuous"? Just keep your shirt on there, Nelly.

    I don't usually like to suggest a TUSH that was released during the mid-spring, but in this case, there's no denying it. Rihanna's "S.O.S.", which came out in April, is still absolutely everywhere. I hear this song several times every single week being played on car radios, in Duane Reade, at the video store--it's unavoidable. It's not the most captivating song, but that "Tainted Love" sample makes it instantly recognizable, and I like Rihanna's relaxed delivery and deep, sexy voice. It first hit #1 on the charts at the beginning of May, but this song has not faded away at all as the summer moves on. There are definitely newer and cooler summer hits out there, but have you heard any of them as many times as you've heard "S.O.S."?

    The Post weighed in on the TUSH issues a few weeks ago, and many of their "experts" support either "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira (which came out in March) and this "Promiscuous" garbage. Some think Justin Timberlake's new single "Sexy Back" may yet emerge as a late-summer TUSH (but it won't, it sucks), and I'm also interested to see if Paris Hilton's surprisingly not-loathsome "Stars Are Blind" goes anywhere. We'll see what happens in the next few weeks. But for the moment, it looks like 18 year-old Rihanna has it. If I'm just wildly out of touch and have missed a more ubiquitous tune, please leave a comment.

    TUSH 2004, 2005

    July 5, 2006

    Gnarls Barkley: the drink

    Gnarls Barkley drinking Gnarls Barkleys

    I've been really impressed by the Gnarls Barkley album, "St. Elsewhere". Perhaps you've heard of it, as it's been in the press pretty much nonstop since the spring. I like them, I like their music, and of course I really like their promotional photos.

    So one night last week while on vacation at a sleepy little lake in Vermont, I realized that Gnarls Barkley deserve their own drink. Something with all-American ingredients that was sort of Southern, and sort of like what teenagers might want to drink the first time they get really drunk on their parents' liquor cabinet and whatever they find in the fridge. With some experimentation (first attempt turned out to be a modified Scarlett O'Hara), and some help from my drinking buddy and Joe the bartender, we hit upon Gnarls Barkley: the drink.

    In a highball glass:
    A good, long, healthy pour of Jim Beam (or Jack Daniels)
    Fill most of the glass with Dr. Pepper and ice (or Mr. Pibb if you want to be extra southern)
    Add a splash of cranberry (doesn't add any flavor, but makes the drink a nice deep red)
    Crush a mint leaf, add that in
    Garnish with lime

    It's delicious! Sort of a less classy mint julep. Drink up!

    July 3, 2006

    Which Summer Movie Should You See?

    Brandon Routh or Al GoreAl Gore or Brandon Routh

    There's nothing more delightful in the hot, muggy summer than a cool, air-conditioned movie theater. But what to choose when some summer releases are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable? I'm speaking, of course, about the special effects extravaganzas An Inconvenient Truth, and Superman Returns.

    Below is a handy guide to help you decide where to spend your summer movie dollars. (Warning: Potential Superman Returns spoilers. If you're a Republican legislator, there may be a few Inconvenient Truth spoilers too.)

    How long will I be in air-conditioning?
    Superman: 2 hours, 37 minutes
    Inconvenient Truth: 1 hour, 40 minutes

    Superman: Soap star Brandon Routh, who looks very similar to Christopher Reeve's Superman, but much younger.
    Inconvenient Truth: Presidential nominee Al Gore, who looks very similar to Christopher Reeve's Superman, but older and paunchier.

    Charm and Charisma Factor
    Superman: Routh is very pretty, but a little bland, and there's nowhere near enough of the Clark/Lois interaction that is always the most entertaining part of a Superman movie. He's also frequently computer-generated.
    Inconvenient Truth: Gore is suprisingly charismatic and exhibits much of the dry humor one wishes he showed more of as a presidential candidate.

    Superman: Lex Luthor
    Inconvenient Truth: Carbon dioxide (and Congress)

    World Crisis
    Superman: Crystals from Krypton are used in real-estate plot to create a new continent, submerging North America and other land masses.
    Inconvenient Truth: Greenland melts, raising global sea level by 20 feet and submerging major world cities.

    Threat to New York City
    Superman: Major earthquakes, eventually total submersion under the Atlantic.
    Inconvenient Truth: Lower Manhattan destroyed, but Amy's Robot residences in Brooklyn, Midtown, and Upper Manhattan should be fine.

    9-11 References
    Superman: Indirect. Many shots of Twin Towerless lower Manhattan, references to terrible things happening in Superman's "5-year" absence.
    Inconvenient Truth: Comparison of destruction of Towers to potential destruction of all of lower Manhattan.

    Casualties if Crisis Is Not Averted
    Superman: "Billions"
    Inconvenient Truth: "Hundreds of Millions"

    Special Effects
    Superman: Non-stop, including planes, boats, crystal landmasses, and possibly Routh's muscles.
    Inconvenient Truth: Endearing attempt to make it seem like Gore knows PowerPoint, including many shots of him scrolling through the presentation on his laptop.

    Superman: Suprisingly, with the exception of an early plane rescue, no. Earnest, and kind of a drag.
    Inconvenient Truth: Surprisingly, for a movie based on a PowerPoint, yes. Earnest, but engaging.

    June 5, 2006

    World Cup: yes, Americans watch it too

    Fans at Novecento

    How about if this year, we forget about all those lazy sports journalists and commentators out there who every 4 years come out with the same old "why don't Americans care about soccer?" routine that is increasingly tedious and inaccurate.

    Thankfully, New York media isn't falling into that trap. The Post has a feature on where you can watch World Cup matches, which start this Friday, with a good list of names and addresses. Little Brazil (46th St between 5th and 7th Aves) is going to have a lot of options, including Ipanema and Brazil Brazil. Hallo Berlin, the friendly German beer and sausage hall on 10th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen is going to be serving sausage breakfast sandwiches, and has gotten 3 more TVs installed.

    And you've probably already seen groups of really hammered English guys smoking outside Nevada Smith's on Sunday afternoons year-round: they'll be there when the bar opens at 7:00 AM this weekend. The 11th Street bar (11th between A and B) and Baker Street Pub (First Avenue and 63rd) will also likely be popular with England fans. Novecento on Broadway in SoHo is for Argentina fans. Or go to pretty much any bar or restaurant in Astoria, and you'll probably find people watching.

    You should watch the games at the ESPN Zone in Times Square only if you want to be surrounded by the kind of people who constantly ask "why don't Americans care about soccer?"

    The Daily News has a great piece on the Trinidad and Tobago Soca Warriors, who are in the World Cup for the first time ever this year; much of the Caribbean population of Brooklyn is beside itself with excitement. Caribbean businesses around Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Fort Greene will definitely be showing the games, and probably hosting giant Carnival-like parties for the next month.

    And the NY Times offers a helpful rundown of the 10 teams that stand a decent chance of winning. It's a useful summary of how the teams have been doing lately, and offers updates on Wayne Rooney and Francesco Totti's broken limbs.

    Meanwhile, in Poland they're celebrating by putting miniature soccer pitches in their urinals.

    June 1, 2006

    Spell your hearts out, kids!

    National Spelling Bee

    Tune in to ABC tonight to watch the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the first time the competition has been broadcast on network primetime. But it's hardly the first time we've gotten to watch children look like they want to claw at their faces in spelling-bee agony.

    Spellbound was a hit back in 2003. Nobody saw that Bee Season crap, or Akeelah, which was a total bust for the bastards over at Starbucks who were convinced that what the world really needed was just one more spelling bee movie.

    Now that there have been all these fictional spelling bee stories around, watching the real-life event might just feel like a reality show. But I guess it's still not too late to get some mileage out of a cultural fad that takes pleasure in watching the future of America have anxiety attacks in front of an audience of millions.

    Actually, most of these kids are very poised under pressure, and really seem to have their shit together. If we're lucky, maybe we'll be voting for former spelling bee champs to run the country in another 30 years or so.

    May 19, 2006

    Do Not Anger the Gods of The O.C.

    marissa cooper rip

    We haven't written here about The O.C. in some time, due to its increasing irrelevance to cultural life, but last night's season finale, "The Graduates," does require some comment.

    Luckily, we were able to sneak into a secret production meeting toward the end of this season to bring you this secret transcript:

    Mischa Barton: This show is so stupid. I'm a real actress. I want out of this contract.
    O.C. Producers: Oh, awesome. Can you have your trailer packed up in ten minutes?
    MB: Oh - well, I mean, maybe Marissa could just go work on a boat or something, and then I'd totally guest a couple of episodes if things don't work out.
    O.C. Producers: Yeah, whatever. Say hi to Neve Campbell and Jessica Biel.

    (exit MB)

    Producer 1: Car crash?
    Producer 2: Yeah. And let's give her a big fucking head wound too.


    Interestingly, the AP piece on this was written by a Sandy Cohen.

    May 18, 2006

    I wonder which catchphrase demographic the Republicans are targeting this year?

    Nascar RNC

    Bush speaks at a Republican National Committee gala in Washington May 17, 2006.

    May 16, 2006

    Readers: dumber than you think they are

    Da Vinci Code maybe taken a little too seriously

    If you're like me, you probably think the Catholic church and Catholic-affiliated organizations are making way too big a deal out of The Da Vinci Code and the ways its story deviates from Biblical assumptions about Jesus. I mean, come on. Nobody really thinks that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children together, or that Opus Dei are a bunch of power-hungry murderers, just because that stuff is part of the plot of some popular airport novel.

    But the chuch has gone so far as to appoint an archbishop to counter all the non-factual elements of the book, produce a documentary called The Da Vinci Code: A Masterful Deception, and Opus Dei wants a disclaimer about the fictional nature of the story to be shown at screenings everywhere. Which is ridiculous--doesn't the Vatican have bigger issues to worry about than a movie? Don't they know that people can tell the difference between a novel and a history book? How stupid do they think the general public is?

    Well, pretty stupid, as it turns out. A group of Catholic leaders in the UK recently sponsored a survey to compare the beliefs of people who have read The Da Vinci Code and those who haven't. It turns out that the book does appear to influence what people believe about Jesus and Catholic institutions.

    A Reuters piece on the survey says, "They interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene -- a possibility raised by the book -- compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book.

    "The novel, which has sold over 40 million copies, also depicts Opus Dei as a ruthless Machiavellian organization whose members resort to murder to keep the Church's secrets. In the survey, readers were asked if Opus Dei had ever carried out a murder. Seventeen percent of readers believe it had, compared with just four percent of non-readers."

    Considering that over 20% of the adult UK population has read The Da Vinci Code, maybe the Catholic church has some basis for concern. We all know that surveys can be biased and skew results in favor of a particular position. And I don't believe that writers and movie producers should be held responsible for some viewers' beliefs being overly influenced by their work. But if that many people out there don't understand that movies and novels aren't real, maybe Dan Brown is actually a frighteningly powerful figure in modern theology.

    May 8, 2006

    Smoking Ban? Not in Astoria

    Egyptian Cafe hookahs

    New York City's Department of Health claims that three years into the smoking ban in all workplaces, there is 99% compliance citywide. Sure, you probably know a couple of bars that wait until after the time of night when inspectors usually check them out, then put out a few ashtrays. Unless you live in Astoria, Queens, where the "smoking ban" is taken about as seriously as Guilani's campaign against ferrets.

    The Post reports today that "nine of the city's 12 worst violators were watering holes and eateries in Astoria that cater to smoke-happy Greek, Slavic and other European ethnics and Middle Easterners." Reporters from the Post went into Croatian bar Cafe Scorpio at Broadway and 36th Street, which with 11 violations of the smoking ban last year is the city's worst offender. They found pretty much everybody in the whole place smoking. The manager said, "My clientele are all smokers. It's a European crowd," during an interview in which a patron handed him a pack of cigarettes. At Cafe Valentino, also on Broadway, just about everybody was smoking, including the bartender, who offered the Post reporter an ashtray.

    OK, so Europeans like their cigarettes. But what about the part of Astoria around Steinway Street, where the businesses are more Middle Eastern than Central European? In the multicultural wonderland of New York, people from all over the world can come together around their shared love of illicit smoking. The hookah cafes along Steinway, like the popular Al Sukaria Egyptian Cafe, are full of men smoking water pipes and drinking coffee, and there are so many of them that I had always assumed it was legal to smoke in those places. The smoking ban doesn't apply to establishments that derive a certain portion of their revenue from tobacco sales, though this exemption originally only applied to businesses that also serve alcohol. This mostly meant pretentious, expensive "cigar bars" in Manhattan, like Circa Tabac.

    Since the clientele of Astoria's hookah cafes is mostly Muslim and therefore doesn't drink, the city later agreed to a cultural exemption from the alcohol rule. Even though Al Sukaria is supposed to fall under this exemption, the cafe still got hit with 10 smoking violations from the city last year. Like the Croatians and Greeks in other parts of Astoria, patrons at this cafe also claim a cultural right to smoke: "This is our culture. In America people meet in the home. In our culture we meet in a cafe."

    It remains to be seen if the city will actually shut a business down for repeated smoking violations. Fines range from $200 to $2,000, and clearly some bars would rather pay up than enforce the law. Back when the ban started, some people suggested that a better solution might be to have a designated class of bar that could buy a smoking license, so that customers (and presumably employees) could choose which kind of bar to go to. Bloomberg would never admit it, but maybe that's what we've ended up with. The city's goal of protecting the health of all workers is admirable, but they probably really don't want to get into a battle of cultural sensitivity with largely immigrant populations in Queens. As long as business owners keep supporting their smoking patrons by paying the city fines, looks like the Euro kids can keep lighting up their Dunhills.

    April 26, 2006

    What Does it Take to be a U.S. Citizen?

    Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue sure loves the Lord - last week, he signed a few bills allowing Georgia's schools to teach Bible classes, and their courthouses to display the Ten Commandments. But his love of God and man doesn't extend to those born outside our borders. While he had his pen out, he also took the opportunity to sign the harshest immigration law of any state, denying most state services to undocumented immigrants. And other states are looking to get in on the anti-immigrant action, too.

    Luckily, our President understands the plight of our lowest-paid workers, admitting on Monday that it's just not "realistic" to deport 11 million people back to their countries of origin - especially when we have crappy jobs that need doing right here. Instead, he's hoping Congress can find a way for these folks to work their way toward becoming proud U.S. citizens.

    Obviously, in these uncertain times™, we don't let just anyone become a citizen of our United States. So, what kind of people would we welcome as fellow citizens? A quick trip over to the Citizenship and Immigration website - now under the Department of Homeland Security - proved quite instructional. In order to apply for naturalization, you must be over 18 and have lived in the country for five years (or three, if married to a citizen). Fair enough. You must love the Constitution. Well, sure - who doesn't? Then we come to the sticky part....exhibiting " good moral character."

    And what constitutes "good moral character"? Obviously, you can't have been convicted of a crime recently - including gambling or drug related offenses, prostitution, or other "moral turpitude." (sorry, GOP!) You also can't be a polygamist (sorry, Bill Paxton!) or a habitual drunkard (sorry, Amy's Robot!).

    Good so far? You'll also need to demonstrate that you can comprehend and write English. At your interview, an immigration official will ask you to demonstrate this by writing a sample sentence of his or her choice. But don't worry - USCIS helpfully offers some samples to practice, such as:

    All people want to be free.

    America is the land of freedom.

    Many people come to America for freedom.

    People in America have the right to freedom.

    Many people have died for freedom.

    Prefer something more related to everyday life? How about writing 100 times:

    The man wanted to get a job.

    It is a good job to start with.

    I go to work everyday.

    The children wanted a television.

    She needs to buy some new clothes.

    They are very happy with their car.

    They buy many things at the store.

    Of course, why limit our future citizens? Amy and I came up with a few other suggestions, including:

    How will he pay for the doctor?

    Three dollars an hour is a fair wage.

    They enlist their sons in the Army.

    Any other suggestions to help our nation's undocumented workers become full participants in our great society?

    April 22, 2006

    Thank Heaven

    Since I consider myself something of a snack specialist, I thought that the best place to learn about cutting-edge snack innovations would be at the recent snack food manufacturers' trade show, SNAXPO™.

    I was wrong. Screw conferences. You want to study snacks? Wait until a 7-Eleven opens on your street.

    Now, I grew up with a choice between Store 24 and Cumberland Farms, in an area where convenience stores could only be successful by a) selling gasoline or b) supplying a parking lot for teenagers to hang out in and pay homeless men to buy wine coolers for them. So when the 7-Eleven opened on 42nd Street, I thought, how could a store that gives away free coffee with every breakfast sandwich possibly succeed in an enormous retail space in one of the highest-rent areas in Manhattan?

    After I returned from SNAXPO™, still unable to bend my fingers due to salt consumption, I decided to investigate for myself. And that is when I realized that 7-Eleven is SNACK NIRVANA. For one thing, not only does the store stock the most creative brand extensions around, it also employs some of New York's most knowledgeable and aggressive salespeople.

    Emily: What is this....some new kind of Tic-Tac? Tic-Tac BOLD™?
    Clerk: Yes! They're very good!
    Emily: Hm...they look neat - but I don't really like Tic-Tacs.
    Clerk: Oh, these are much better than regular Tic-Tac.
    Emily: Really?
    Clerk: Oh yes! Much better! But we still have the old kind, too.
    Emily: Ok, I'll take one of each. And those Chile Picante Corn Nuts.

    Besides Tic-Tac BOLD™, which comes in a pleasing squeezable container updated for the 21st century, my 7-Eleven is currently featuring:

    Seven flavors and shapes of Cheez-its™, including Fiesta Cheddar Nacho™ and Twisterz Cheddar and More Cheddar™ (don't bother; they're really just regular Cheez-its™ with a coating of Kraft Mac and Cheese powder)

    so many cheezits

    A wide assortment of my favorite candy ever, Laffy Taffy™, in bold flavors such as "Sparkle Jerry Cherry", which is not only approximately two feet long, but ALSO has a sparkly sugar coating

    so much laffy taffy

    and Heineken Mini-Kegs for $19.99.

    the bounty of 7-Eleven

    But 7-Eleven's boldest, most daring product - I dare say, even more creative than Burger King's Chicken Fries, which are designed to fit in your car's cupholder - is almost too much to comprehend.

    "Why waste all this space on our hot dog roller grill," 7-Eleven marketing executives must have said to themselves, "When we could appeal to people who want hot, cylindrical foods other than hot dogs? And what do Americans love more than hot dogs? Pizza!"

    And so, the 7-Eleven Twista™ was born. (Not, of course, to be confused with the Cheez-it Twisterz™ mentioned above)

    the greatest snack food in the universe

    While the Twista™ and its roller-grill companion snack the Taquito still appear to be in the pilot phase, I applaud 7-Eleven's ingenuity. I can only hope that these are but the first of many snack foods, like the Chicken Fry, that are tailored with our unique American cultural tastes* and habits** in mind.

    *By which I mean, salt and fat
    **By which I mean, laziness and gluttony

    April 17, 2006

    Why God hates America

    Easter Egg Roll

    Westboro Baptist Church protest

    Here's some photographic evidence of exactly what has prompted the legendary and energetic Westboro Baptist Church, of the famed / scuffle, to start picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq with placards saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers".

    From the NY Times article about state legislation banning them from funerals: "Embracing a literal translation of the Bible, the church members believe that God strikes down the wicked, chief among them gay men and lesbians and people who fail to strongly condemn homosexuality. God is killing soldiers, they say, because of America's unwillingness to condemn gay people and their lifestyles."

    Gee, and all this time I thought soldiers were being killed because our government deployed the military to fight a war in Iraq.

    Above, top: Same-sex couple Christina Burke and Victoria Burke, both from Salisbury, Maryland, pose with Mrs. Bunny and their daughter, Phobe (6 months old), on the South Lawn of the White House during the annual 2006 White House Easter Egg Roll in Washington, April 17, 2006.

    Above, bottom: Members of Westboro Baptist Church demonstrating in February in Anoka, Minn., near the funeral for Cpl. Andrew Kemple, who was killed in Iraq. People opposed to the church's views carried flags nearby.

    See also: God Hates Shrimp

    April 3, 2006

    The Axe Effect (on 11 year-olds)

    Axe Effect

    Some of the most pervasive and eye-catching ad campaigns in recent years have been those for Unilever's Axe body spray and related male grooming products. The fridge full of cans of whipped cream, the women humping their apartment building's water drainage pipe, the woman with the image of a coat hanger imprinted on her back (I have to admit, I still don't 100% get that one.) They're all sort of clever, and they all have an unmistakable message: this shit will get you so laid.

    Convincing American men to use body spray (a product I had always associated with "when a man you've never met suddenly gives you flowers, that's Impulse!") may have been an uphill battle, but somehow Axe has managed to associate itself in our minds, as a Slate reporter wrote a while back, with getting "crazy, spontaneous monkeysex."

    That same Slate writer predicted that, although Axe was the top-selling men's body spray on the market in 2004, it wouldn't be for long. The problem is, he wrote, "when you promise spontaneous monkeysex, you run into a couple of problems. 1) You won't deliver on that promise. This leaves the customer disappointed and sours him on the brand. 2) Your image gets linked with the guy who is desperate to get laid and who needs some sort of magic potion to help him. Which is not a great image."

    But apparently the middle schoolers of suburban Washington, DC don't have a problem with 1) or 2), probably because at age 11, they don't have much hope of getting any monkeysex anyway. The Washington Post has a piece today on the overwhelming popularity of Axe among pre-pubescent boys, who have whole-heartedly bought into the Axe marketing strategy.

    "I was watching the commercial, and there was this guy and he was mobbed by a bunch of girls, and I thought, 'Wow, that's tight! ' " said Asean Townsend, 12. "So I went to CVS and bought it."

    The article includes many other wonderful testimonials from middle-school boys about their allegiance to Axe, and some concerns from gym teachers that boys may be using it as a convenient replacement for showering. Some boys have already been using Axe for so long (the $5 retail price encourages brand loyalty) that they've moved onto other more grown-up fragrances offered by Axe:

    "Eighth-grader Klima Arrola started wearing Axe when he was 11 after seeing a TV commercial in a which a good-looking guy was mobbed by a bunch of even better-looking women. He found the ad appealing, he said. Now 14, he prefers Axe's Orion fragrance, described as an 'aromatic citrus/fruity fragrance with a transparent watery top note composed of minty accents, orange flower, geranium, citrus and musk.' But to Klima, who doesn't have a girlfriend, 'It just smells good.'"

    And what about the girls? Do they find their musky, Axey classmates appealing?

    "Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," said Allison Testamark, 14, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

    Remember, boys: girls do appreciate personal grooming, but in achieving the Axe Effect, less is more.

    April 1, 2006

    New Game Show Hosts: Survey Says...

    A while back, we were lamenting the sorry state of recent Family Feud hosts, and asked you to suggest a new one who could bring as much bleary, scotch-drinking, tongue-kissing charm to the show as the monumentally talented Richard Dawson.

    But strangely, none of you suggested this guy:

    The new host of family feud

    Yes, John O'Hurley, formerly J. Peterman, fresh from dazzling America with his footwork on Dancing with the Stars, has been tapped as the Feud's fifth host.

    While O'Hurley does have a certain insouciant charm, is he dangerous enough to make midwestern mothers giggle, and also be a little bit uncomfortable? We'll find out soon enough.

    March 1, 2006

    Show us your man-tits!

    It brought a smile to my face to see the hordes of elaborately costumed locals and beefy red-faced tourists all cavorting around the French Quarter and getting drunk together for Mardi Gras this year. And it brought a heave to my stomach to see all the celebrities who joined the parade, who all seem to look a little less beautiful and a lot more bloated than usual without their professional makeup artists, hairstylists, lighting designers, and photographers around.

    Some of the these photos are so unrecognizable they could almost be a Who'dat?™.

    There's Sean Astin, who appears to be morphing into Tyne Daly,

    Sean Astin

    Steven Seagal, with a hefty dollop of Tom Jones and John Goodman in there somewhere,

    Steven Seagal

    Josh Hartnett, miserable grease-ball,

    Josh Hartnett

    Dan Aykroyd, who is actually looking just as terrible as he always does,

    Dan Aykroyd

    Michael Keaton in a shiny white Elvis jumpsuit and Jack Nicholson mask,

    Michael Keaton

    Anderson Cooper, who somehow still looks as put-together and handsome as ever,

    Anderson Cooper

    and the always-debonair Sean Connery in a super-sexy Mardi Gras costume.

    some weirdo at Mardi Gras

    February 27, 2006

    New Orleans, then and now

    Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and we all watched one of the biggest fuck-ups in recent history play out, it's party time again in New Orleans. Mardi Gras!

    So we bring you a few interesting photos from September 2005 and from last Saturday's parade.

    New Orleans, September 2005 /

    Remember this scary old coot with his ugly woman and his claw hammer, letting potential looters know what was waiting for them if they tried to break into his house?

    Here's that same painted wall now, with parade watchers waiting for the Mardi Gras floats to come by.

    New Orleans, February 2006

    Those are some dark, witty updates on the deteriorating state of the man and his house--dog gumbo, ha!

    He also asks everyone to "come back for Carnival" on the center panel. Well, a lot of them did. Check out this picture of post-Katrina debris, and this weekend's picture of post-Mardi Gras Parade debris.

    New Orleans debris

    New Orleans debris

    If those beads weren't in one of them, it might be hard to tell the difference.

    February 6, 2006

    Fake news, real news

    Michael Jackson, the Pope's composer

    Remember in 2004 when Maureen Dowd referenced a joke in an Ali G interview with James Baker about the similarity of the words "Iraq" and "Iran" and the potential danger of attacking the wrong country ("Bomb Ira-")? She pointed out that this joke had sort of come true: "Well, as it turns out, we did bomb the wrong Ira-."

    In recent years there have also been some easy jokes made about the Catholic church and its child abuse scandals that went like this:

    You know who the Catholics could bring in to see them through these scandals and restore their public image? MICHAEL JACKSON! Or:

    You know who would be a good new Pope who could show the world that the church is in touch with recent events? MICHAEL JACKSON!

    So today there's another joke:

    You know who the Catholics should hire to set John Paul II's prayers and chants to music? MICHAEL JACKSON!

    And like "bomb Ira-", it's come true.

    January 19, 2006

    When Helpful Signs Raise More Questions Than They Answer

    On my way to purchase some two cent stamps at the neighborhood post office today, I encountered this puzzling sign on the front door:

    Federal Holidays New York style

    Since I am so easily confused, my first thoughts were:

    1) Damn, November 11th - that was months ago! Doesn't anyone check this stuff?

    2) Ve....ver.....Vertan's Day? Like.....Michael Vartan? Michael Vartan Day? Yeah, he's hot - I could get behind that.......

    3) But that seems kind of weird, to have a Federal holiday for a Canadian.

    4) And besides, how do you celebrate? Send a card to Jennifer Garner?

    5) I wonder if they have any two cent stamps left.

    January 18, 2006

    Who's Older?™: Trademark Infringement Edition

    Over the years, Amy's Robot has presented a wide variety of celebrities in our semi-regular Who's Older?™ feature -- everyone from presidential candidates to aging rock stars. But the current edition of Us Weekly, on newstands now, has opened us up to a whole new kind of game.

    Who's Older?™

    Beloved national pastime Who's Older?™ or...

    US Weekly Copyright Lawsuit

    Us Weekly's new occasional feature Who Do You Think Is Older?

    Thank you readers - you have all guessed correctly. Our Who's Older?™ (April 25, 2003) is older than Who Do You Think Is Older? (January 30, 2006)

    Janice, you can just go ahead and make that check out to: Amy's Robot.

    Bonus points if you also noted that the Amy's Robot feature has a catchier name. And that using stars who lie about their age is cheating. Please. If Catherine Zeta-Jones is 36, then I'm 19.

    January 16, 2006

    And how will New Yorkers be honoring the work of Dr. King this weekend?

    Celebrating Dr. King

    January 9, 2006

    Robot-on-the-Spot: Robots in Brooklyn!

    If you're walking down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn - look out! You may see some robots on the loose.

    Robots in brooklyn
    More robots in brooklyn

    The robots are part of a display by Bennett Robot Works (aka artist Gordon Bennett) called "40 Robots" - a collection crafted from found industrial materials like used car parts, cameras, radios, and fire alarms. It looks like they've been up there since October, but I just noticed them a few weeks ago.

    At first I was intrigued, then charmed. Now I stop and visit with my robot friends every time I walk past. My favorite is Detecto, but I am also partial to Captain.

    The best thing about these robots is that they are for sale, and I imagine they make excellent gifts! In fact, you probably wouldn't even have to wait until someone's birthday. You could probably get one for me them right now, and they would be totally happy, I bet.

    January 6, 2006

    Foreign Languages

    Bush is a Texan

    In an address he made at the U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education yesterday, Bush may have identified the precise cause of his inability to connect with large sectors of the American public.

    He announced a new initiative to encourage more American students to learn foreign languages, which will help our citizens relate more effectively to our neighbors from countries around the world.

    Citing his own experience with meeting foreigners who speak his language, Bush said, "When somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture."

    So that's why our President's words cause so much confusion and frustration for so many Americans! That's why we feel like he doesn't understand the interests of regular people! He's speaking Texan.

    The particular langauges that the initiative is intended to encourage in U.S. public schools are Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, and Farsi. Someone in Washington knows which countries and regions are rising in the world, and they sure aren't France and Spain.

    November 28, 2005

    Hollywood wants historical child molesters

    Fictitious Pocahontas macks with John Smith

    For decades, historians have been rolling their eyes at the many inaccuracies of the Pocahontas story as told again and again in Hollywood movies and pop songs. Pocahontas and John Smith never got married! They probably never had any romatic relationship at all! Pocahontas was not the curvaceous woman in a sexy one-strap dress from the Disney movie! She certainly never said to her Powhatan chief father, "I'm his misses, so Daddy, won't you treat him right"!

    So now there's this new Terrence Malick movie coming out, The New World. In a NY Times piece about the particular historical angle they chose for this movie, producer Sarah Green says, "First and foremost we've created a love story."

    However, this new movie does get at least a few key details right: the actress playing Pocahontas is only 14 (the real Pocahontas was probably 11 when she first met the explorers) and Colin Farrell, 29, plays John Smith. Certain aspects of Colin Farrell's personality may be especially useful in his characterization of Smith: a history professor at Colgate says, "Smith wrote often later in life about beautiful young girls in all parts of the world throwing themselves at him... I refer to it as the 'pornographic narrative.'"

    November 22, 2005

    When Holidays Collide: The Halloween/Thanksgiving Divide

    scary turkey

    Not to scale. Actually devil-turkey size is approximately 11 feet.

    October 25, 2005

    Fundamentalist Desert Sex Cult!

    A community of 8,000 people who live in the desert area on the Utah-Arizona border and call themselves members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has inspired a sensational and implausible-sounding NY Times article. Religious frontier outlaws who rape children and force women to leave their husbands and take up with old men! Renegade zealots who run the Mayor's office, the school board, and the police department, despite the presence of outside law enforcement! A charismatic leader who is on the run from the law, but still controls everyone who lives in the township, has as many as 70 wives, and urges his followers to go on welfare to "bleed the beast"! Except of course it's all true.

    Full-time law enforcement was brought in from outside to try to bring some order to this community, but to no avail. The charismatic outlaw leader, Warren Jeffs, teaches that men cannot get to heaven unless they have at least three wives, so the town's women are constantly being reassigned. A resident who left the church when it made his daughter leave her husband to marry her husband's father says, "This just makes me want to cry. I've lost my daughter and her children to this church. I have to stand outside on the sidewalk and beg if I want to see my grandchildren."

    But the leaders of this church aren't just into forcing 16 year-olds into marriages with bigamists and controlling the lives of the its members, it's corrupt too. The church owns all the town's land, and recently used public education funds to buy a $200,000 plane, while teachers hadn't been paid in weeks.

    Any other reporters who venture into this town had better watch out to make sure they don't get kidnapped, tied to a bed, and forcibly infected with a really big parasitic slug that crawls up your spine and into your brain, like what happened to Scully in "Roadrunners" from season 8 of The X-Files. Residents of that town (north of Sugarville) said they were "just a few like-minded people trying to keep the modern world at bay." Then in one of the creepiest scenes in the history of the show, the big mob of cult-members approach Scully with the God-slug and tell her, "Your life is about to take a wonderful turn. You're going to become a part of something much, much greater than you are. You're going to be... so loved."

    Amen. Shudder.

    October 12, 2005

    Oh my god I totally hate my mom

    The Washington Post today analyzes the therapeutic nature, and occasional traumas, of posting your most personal thoughts on a website that is accessible to everybody in the entire universe. Yes, there are some people out there who do blogs chronicling their daily activities, the fights they get in with their boss, their intimate and gruesome medical procedures, their romantic developments, and, in the case of teenage girls, how much they totally cannot STAND their mothers. For some reason, cat wallpaper figures into many such blogs.

    In a nice meta-touch, the Post uses Technorati to link to a list of blogs that link to the article, many of which fall into the aforementioned personal diary category.

    Of course, the article also mentions a number of hospitals that have found that very sick people find comfort and community in sharing their experiences with other distant people who are going through similar treatments. There is certainly value in using the internet to find these other people.

    But people. This is the internet. The whole world is reading your diary. The WaPo article says, "Some bloggers are unprepared for the attention and don't realize that what seems to be a disposable medium is anything but." If you think back through your life, there are probably at least a few people out there you might not want to know about how you made out with your ex-girlfriend in her boyfriend's car, or that you've been really depressed about your future lately, or the raging party you're having next weekend.

    And: your parents can read your blog.

    So even if you might think you want to read about the predilections, favorite ice cream flavors, hypothetical baby names, drinking stories, freaky dreams, illegal fetishes, suicide attempts, and emoticons of Emily, ADM, and I, sorry. You're stuck with ugly celebrity pictures and posts about TV. - Amy

    And people, seriously, don't write about your job on your blog. The first 8 zillion people who got fired for bitching about their bosses might have gotten some sympathy, but that time is over. As hard as it is for Amy to not talk about her nights of undercover crimefighting and for me to never mention the long-running network soap opera that I write for, we realize that just like your parents: your boss can read your blog too. (ps - my favorite ice cream is butter pecan.) - Emily

    September 2, 2005

    New Orleans, Zombie City

    As the situation on the ground in New Orleans has crumbled into complete chaos, danger, violence, and a failure by the powerful to protect the vulnerable, people have turned on each other with increased viciousness, moving through the city looking for safe shelter and fighting over scarce supplies. "We're just a bunch of rats," said Earle Young, an evacuee waiting to be taken out of the destroyed city by bus.

    It seems not real. We normally only see people fighting for their lives in this way in movies about zombie attacks. Take a look at these pictures. One is from 2004's Dawn of the Dead. The other is from yesterday in New Orleans. Which is which? With these, and with others, it's too hard to tell.

    save us from the zombies!

    save us from the looters!

    In movies, zombies represent us turned against ourselves -- humanity is stripped away, social order breaks down in the face of fear and chaos, and nothing matters anymore except survival. Of course, when you have 100,000 people stranded in a city with dead bodies everywhere, with no food, water, electricity, or medical supplies for four days, I don't see how they could be expected to act any other way.

    Political leaders are encouraging the zombie attack metaphor by abandoning efforts to rescue people and threatening to kill anyone caught breaking the law -- treating citizens as if they were the living dead, things to be controlled and exterminated, rather than helped and saved. Governor Kathleen Blanco said that the National Guardsmen who are coming into the city are fresh from Iraq, ready for more: "They have M-16's and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."

    Just be sure they shoot the zombies in the head, Kathleen, it's the only way to kill them. Or have the National Guard drop 100,000 copies of The Zombie Survival Guide onto the city, which I'm sure would delight all the starving, sick, exhausted evacuees for whom we should have "zero tolerance."

    When Early Print Deadlines Make You Look Like An Asshole

    Us Weekly Video Music Award Coverage
    September 12 edition:

    "With the hurricane, I didn't want to do anything too extreme," [Gwen Stefani] told Us of her high, sleek ponytail."
    Best '60s Hair: Gwen Stefani

    "When a flash of rain threatened to soak the event, partiers dashed to the hotel lobby for cover. But five minutes later, everyone was back outside busting a move!"
    Jessica Alba Parties with Us!

    "6:30 PM: As Hurricane Katrina whips up 75 mph winds, Diddy gambles and drinks champagne in his dressing room. "Turn up the music!" he says. "No one's going anywhere." Meanwhile, Missy Elliott tells Us, "I spent the hurricane at my crib. Everybody was drinking Bacardi!"
    What You Didn't See

    August 29, 2005

    VMAs: Some Future Host Suggestions

    Puffy Diddy hosts VMAs

    I only made it through about 30 minutes of the VMAs last night, catching a couple of awards (The Killers, Kelly Clarkson) and Puffy Diddy standing around being wooden and almost completely uninteresting, before the Mariah Carey performance (which was inexplicably being broadcast from a different venue in Miami) came on and I turned that crap off.

    MTV has taken a few different approaches in selecting the host of the VMAs over the past few years: actor Jimmy Fallon mugging through the 2002 awards, comedian Chris Rock as perhaps the best host ever in 2003 (especially when he called Good Charlotte "mediocre Green Day" right after their performance,) and no host at all last year. Choosing Puffy for this year probably sounded like a good idea, but it seems the most notable thing he did all night was that he suggested there be a white carpet leading up to the theater instead of a red one. For such a huge celebrity, Puffy has very little charm, and these days carries himself more like the businessman he's become instead of the artist (or whatever) he once was.

    So I have a few suggestions for future VMA hosts. Unless you can get Chris Rock again, I think the host should be a big figure in music, someone with a lot of charisma, and someone who has a chance of doing something funny or unscripted. And it should be someone who has been very popular in their genre, which doesn't necessarily have to be be hip-hop.

    None of these suggestions would ever be remotely considered by MTV, but man, they would be a riot to watch hosting an awards show.

    • Willie Nelson
    • Shania Twain
    • Ice Cube
    • Daddy Yankee (next year, after he's taken over the world)
    • Tommy Lee
    • Missy Elliott
    • David Lee Roth
    • Eminem
    • Keith Richards
    • Queen Latifah

    OK, OK, I know these people are mostly too old and the youth of today don't want to see Willie Nelson twanging and shuffling all over the stage in his braids. But here's a more serious suggestion: Andre Benjamin. He's a major star, he's crossed over into movies, and he can probably make a few good jokes onstage instead of relying on numerous outfit changes (Puffy had three in the first half-hour) to carry the show.

    Or if you want a completely weird show, MTV could go with the craziest man in show business, R. Kelly, who walked the white carpet in an "I'm Rick James, Bitch" t-shirt.

    crazy R. Kelly

    This outfit choice involves so many confusing layers of mental instability and sexual criminality that it's hard to know if R. Kelly is cleverly/disturbingly parodying his own reputation as an insane child molester or if he just thinks he's showing his support for Chappelle's Show. Then he did an obviously lip-synched abridged version of his urban opera of freakishness, "Trapped in the Closet." Brilliant or crazy?

    You can add any suggestions about the future of the VMAs in the comments.

    August 22, 2005

    A Helpful Current Events Quiz from Ämy's Röböt

    In these uncertain times™ of rapidly shifting priorities, Amy's Robot is proud to introduce a new feature: a pop quiz to test your knowledge of important happenings around the globe.

    We present...

    World Event, or Mötley Crüe Concert?™

    Question 1: Iraqis rioting for improved public services, or "Shout at the Devil"?

    a)Iraqi riot

    b)Shout at the Devil

    Question 2: World Youth Day, or "Home Sweet Home"?

    a) Home Sweet Home

    b)candles at world youth day

    3) Metal detectors in Sudan, or New England?

    a) land mine detection

    b) Vermont metal detector

    Click below for the answers

    Continue reading "A Helpful Current Events Quiz from Ämy's Röböt" »

    August 16, 2005

    This Shit Is Bananas

    When every other word in your song is "shit" and they still ask you to open the Teen Choice Awards with it?

    Gwen at Teen Choice Awards

    It means "Hollaback Girl" is now indisputably the 2005 TUSH.

    August 12, 2005


    Eisenstadt's photo

    In commemoration of V-J Day and the famous Eisenstadt photograph of the random sailor and nurse macking in Times Square, this Sunday there will be a kiss-in for anyone who wants to make out for America.

    There is also a sort of creepy-looking statue recreation of the photograph in Times Square until Sunday.

    So come out to Times Square and scare all the tourists who have yet to see any actual New Yorkers on their vacation to the big city. As Agent 0019 said, it's just too bad that this event isn't coinciding with Fleet Week (hello, sailor!)

    Fleet Week!

    Hopefully many men will choose to dress as sailors for the kiss-in, and maybe there will be a few sassy nurse's outfits too. Actually, this could easily turn into a very fetishy event.

    July 10, 2005

    People, we have a TUSH

    Last summer was a sad time in pop music. We got through the whole summer without a Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH, surfacing and taking over. Every year, we wait for that irresistibly catchy number that we hear again and again on the street, playing from people's car stereos, in Rite Aid, on the radio, and in bars, and we find ourselves growing fond of it even if it's completely goofy and disposable. Hell, BECAUSE it's goofy and disposable.

    In past years, songs like "Hot in Herre" and "Crazy in Love" weren't songs you had to seek out; they were unavoidable, and everybody you know can sing the chorus, probably including your mother. Last year, we got nothing. So over the past few weeks, I've been wondering if the era of the TUSH had come to an end. But we've got some contenders.

    Through June, it was looking like that Black Eyed Peas song "Don't Phunk With My Heart" might be the 2005 TUSH. It got played like crazy, and was catchy enough to be instantly memorable. ADM heard it just about every day while traveling in Europe in May. Unfortunately, it was also an irritating little gnat of a song, and though it's still strong on the charts, it came out in May and peaked too early. This weekend, I heard it at breakfast in the West Village, but hadn't heard it for a week or two before that. And that stupid title drives me crazy.

    Now it's looking like our TUSH is going to be "Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani. I personally find Gwen's nasal voice a little grating, but those booming beats are fantastic, and the video with its high school cheerleaders/ Japanese marching band style fits perfectly. (Norman K. also noticed that the video is weirdly reminiscent of Matthew Barney's Cremaster movies; you half expect Gwen to dance around with some blimps or be naked apart from a diaper.) "Hollaback Girl" came out in May as a single, but it still seems to be gaining momentum. I heard it playing in a Diesel store yesterday (where the DJ mixed it in to "Get Ur Freak On", the 2001 TUSH--clearly a sign,) then today in the video store, where a 10 year-old boy was singing along with it as it played on the radio.

    It's also a song that gets better with repeated listenings. I didn't like it the first time I heard it, but now when she gets to the "This shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!" part, I have to admit I like it. Unfortunately, just about every other word in the song is "shit", so the radio version is so heavily edited that it mostly sounds like complete nonsense, but then again, I can't understand the unedited parts either.

    We'll see if it continues to grow into total ubiquity over the next few weeks, but I think we've finally got our TUSH. Those Neptunes, who produced the song (as well as 2002's TUSH, "Hot in Herre" by Nelly,) understand how make a solid, juicy TUSH.

    The thing about the TUSH is, everybody knows the song. Everybody hears it a billion times. So if think there are other contenders for the 2005 TUSH, please add a comment.

    June 29, 2005

    To Do This Weekend

    Badlands booker with hot dogs

    If it's Fourth of July weekend, it must be time for the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest!

    Nothing brings New Yorkers together like competitive eating, and this week New York magazine has jumped on the Amy's Robot bandwagon with a rather touching feature on how our own local favorites are coaching each other to defeat the unstoppable world hot dog eating champion, Takeru Kobayashi. Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in 2001, doubling the previous record. Since then, no other contestant has even come close to matching him. Last year, he downed an unprecedented 53 hot dogs. Allegedly, the rumor among the competitive eating community is that "the Japanese government had his stomach surgically altered to break the will of the U.S. eating community."

    But frankly, we don't really care about Kobayashi. What of Eric "Badlands" Booker, the Official Competitive Eater of Amy's Robot? Well, first of all, he has nothing but respect for the current world champion. “Watching him eat is seeing lightning in a bottle, poetry in motion,”* says Badlands. But he's determined not to disappoint his fans: “I get the tough love,” he says. “People come up on the train and are like, ‘Yo, how you let that little guy beat you? You can eat 40 hot dogs and him.’ ”

    All the eaters agree that hot dogs are the most challenging food to eat in bulk. "Hot dogs are the most difficult food for competition," says "Hungry Charles" Hardy. "You’re eating two things at once that are both extremely filling—that bread is harder than you think. And the meat is really salty. You get filled up immediately, but you have to keep going." (Kobayashi's signature trick is eating the hot dog and bun separately. Other competitors will sometimes soak the bun in water to make it go down more easily.)

    Will any of our New York eaters win the ultimate prize? Probably not. The East Village's "Crazy Legs" Conti is just hoping to achieve "the deuce", finishing 20 hot dogs. Badlands has come closer, eating 41 hot dogs in a trial run - but they were skinless. (“That makes it a lot easier,” he says.)

    In fact, the only American with a chance of beating Kabayashi is 110 pound Sonya Thomas from Virginia, currently the second-highest ranked eater in the IFOCE, who finished 32 hot dogs last year.

    But here at Amy's Robot, we are all Badlands, all the time. We'll be cheering him on during Monday's live ESPN broadcast, knowing that no matter where he places, no one can ever take that cannoli title away.

    * As someone who has personally seen Badlands down seven pounds of cheesecake, collect a trophy, and then head straight over to the sausage stand across the street - well, that's my definition of "poetry in motion."

    June 27, 2005

    Hollywood skews right

    Weird piece in the Times today about the growing efforts of the political right to get their movies made in Hollywood. These filmmakers, and the article that profiles them, continue to conflate "right-wing" and "Christian." A lot of stereotypes about liberals running the media get thrown around among these guys, who say being a Christian in Hollywood is a "political liability" and make it sound like they are an embattled people who have to lurk around in the shadows of L.A. and eat lunch in unfashionable restaurants because of their persecuted viewpoints.

    Since The Passion of The Christ made over $600 million worldwide, and since the actual political and legislative powers in this country are totally dominated by the right, I'm not so sympathetic of their perceived marginalization in Hollywood. Especially when you look at some of the names dropped in this article as those who form some loose coalition of the right: the producer of X-Men, Clint Eastwood, Ron Silver, Mel Gibson, Gary Oldman (who is described as a "conservative libertarian." ??!!) and people behind projects like the upcoming The Chronicles of Narnia and the ever-growing Left Behind series. It looks like the Christian right is already established in Hollywood, and its influence is growing.

    However, there is one obstacle facing right-wing filmmakers that no one has yet figured out how to solve: whether they will be able to make movies that appeal to typical American audiences, who tend to like a steady diet of movies featuring exploding planes, sexy naked people, savage murders, organized crime, poop jokes, and generally anything involving a whole lot of sex and death. The Passion of The Christ was a big hit, but how many people are going to pay $10.75 to see a Catholic-themed documentary on cloning, which one of The Passion's producers is now making?

    One conservative producer says, "We have the money, we have the ideas. What we don't have - and what the left has in spades - are great filmmakers."

    June 23, 2005

    Plovers: 1, Hamptonites: 0

    piping plover

    Swanky Fourth of July parties at the Hamptons this year will have to go without fireworks displays, due to the return of an endangered species of bird, the piping plover, to the area. The federal government will fine any town that disturbs the nests of the birds, and this year, they're all over East Hampton. Government guidelines about setting off fireworks in areas where plovers nest are here.

    Well! Though many of them may be environmentalists by the checkbook, socialites of East Hampton are not used to having their parties disrupted by no goddamn birds. The author of the article spoke with Jerry Della Femina, an advertising executive and restaurateur, and his wife, Judy Licht, a photographer and writer, who have played host to a Fourth of July celebration for at least 10 summers. She writes, "The gregarious Mr. Della Femina was first at an uncharacteristic loss for words when a reporter told him the display had been canceled this year. He quickly recovered.

    'I just sent out invitations to about 500 people,' said Mr. Della Femina, who is often an outspoken critic of village government. 'That's insane. They must be out of their minds. I'm flabbergasted.'"

    He says he still plans to have his traditional party. "We'll still have it," he said, "but we'll be serving barbecued piping plover. I hear it tastes like chicken."

    Just wait till next year, pal, when your swimming pool and croquet court are overrun with swarming pissed off piping plovers who crap all over your sun patio and build nests in your sculptured topiary.

    June 21, 2005

    Lists! Lists! Lists!

    Oh, hooray! What's better on a Tuesday than a new completely arbitrary list to battle over?

    Tonight, CBS broadcasts the AFI's Top 100 Movie Quotes of All Time. What will they be? Who can imagine? Will "wax on, wax off" top "E.T. phone home"? Will "I knew it was you, Fredo" destroy "Bond. James Bond"?

    AFI has already listed the 400 nominated quotes [pdf], which contain some delightful surprises ("I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum") and some yawns (seriously, Meet the Parents?).

    Of course, we all have our own ideas about what constitutes the greatest movie quote ever. Sure, I'm pretty confident that "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" is going to crush the competition. But in my heart of hearts?

    I know the #1 spot should be reserved for "I know you're in there - I can SMELL YOUR BRAINS!"

    So, Amy's Robot prognosticators, what do you think the top 5 quotes of all time will be? And what do you wish they were?

    [tx John for the heads-up]

    To get you started, MSNBC's staff has also predicted a Top 10, and identified some important missing quotes.

    Update: Well, that was a boring show, although Brando did take the second and third place spots ("Stella!" was shut out of the top 10). Here are the AFI's totally subjective Top 10 Movie Quotes:

    10. You talkin' to me? (Taxi Driver)
    9. Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night. (All About Eve)
    8. May the Force be with you. (Star Wars)
    7. All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup. (Sunset Boulevard)
    6. Go ahead, make my day. (Sudden Impact)
    5. Here's looking at you, kid. (Casablanca)
    4. Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. (The Wizard of Oz) [wrong, wrong, wrong - what happened to "There's no place like home?" #23?]
    3. You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. (On the Waterfront)
    2. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse. (The Godfather)
    1. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. (Gone with the Wind)

    Full list is here.

    June 16, 2005

    New trends in therapy

    It used to be that couples therapy was for married people whose relationship had run out of steam, but who were trying to hold it together. Lately, couples therapists have noticed an increase in clients who are still just dating each other, and the NYT Times did a piece on it. Yes, it used to be that if it wasn't working out with your boy/girlfriend, you would just break up. But now people hire someone else to help them figure out if they should break up or not.

    Erica is a screenwriter who has been in couples therapy with her boyfriend since last fall. In the NYT article, she "likens couples therapy to picking out paint colors for the living room. 'In our generation, we don't have to be experts at everything anymore. You don't have to be the decorator. You can get a fabulous decorator and still have a lovely home that's yours. And you can have someone help you with the communication problems in your relationship, and it's still your relationship.'"

    Couples who are just dating tend to have the same problems--money, sex, religion--as married couples. And going to therapy is surely a helpful process for many couples, regardless of the stage their relationship is in. But what I find strange is that they seem to enter into therapy as a preventive measure against difficulties in a hypothetical future marriage. Like, "well, my boyfriend is a porn addict [as one 35 year-old film producer in the article says her boyfriend is] but if we just go get some therapy, that will solve all our problems and our marriage will be smooth and trouble-free!"

    Anyone who has spent any time around married people, or watched any mid-80's sitcoms, knows it doesn't work that way. Does anyone really know what they're getting into when they decide to marry someone, regardless of the issues they've hashed out in front of a therapist? The article states, "Rather than enter into a marriage fraught with problems, young couples want to work through the angst before the stakes get too high, experts say. It is a form of preventive medicine."

    But ultimately, going to couples therapy doesn't work like getting a decorator to redo your kitchen, since the kitchen more or less stays redone after the decorator leaves. Getting a professional to help you sort through your relationship difficulties can certainly be helpful, but at some point you're going to have to figure this stuff out on your own.

    Since Mormons seem to have happy marriages figured out, we as ever endorse Hot Saints Latter Day Saints onling dating service.

    June 8, 2005

    OTB goes upscale

    OTB goes upscale

    The lowest rung on the ladder of gambling, at least in New York, is without a doubt the OTB. Anyone who has one in their neighborhood is familiar with the haggard old guys who hang out in there, the empty bottles of Wild Irish Rose on the sidewalk outside, and the sad traffic between the OTBs and the check cashing places that are often, conveniently, right next door (a great example of synergy in local business!)

    But now the OTB has decided its image needs some work. We need a new, glamorous, sexy OTB! An OTB for sophisticated, urbane New Yorkers! An OTB that can attract those paragons of reputability, women! Gambling is still gambling, no matter where you do it, but OTB wants to keep its traditional, toothless patrons and its newer, beautiful, wealthier patrons very much apart.

    The Daily News reports that last night the gaming agency held a fashion show in Chelsea, invited a lot of sleek pretty people, and tried to reinvent itself in anticipation of the Belmont Stakes and other high-profile gambling events. There are now 13 restaurants that are OTB locations, and presumably they will not smell like urine and whiskey.

    However, shaking the traditional image might be difficult for OTB, even with the new push. Sal Zaffarese, who played the ponies yesterday while enjoying a beer and a plate of fried calamari at a restaurant that offers betting services, was interviewed by the Daily News.

    "Women might not know that this is a nice place, a safe place," he said. "It's not like the parlors, with the $2 bums hanging out all day."

    So, I guess gambling is nice and safe as long as you bet high.

    June 7, 2005

    Like wearing a wedding dress isn't humiliating enough


    New reality show Bridezillas, which starts on WE this weekend, examines the American phenomenon of nice, regular, unassuming people turning into self-obsessed, hyper-demanding, tantrum-throwing terrors in the days leading up to their weddings.

    To promote the show, WE held a wacky and mortifying publicity stunt this morning right smack in the middle of Times Square, in which a whole herd of ladies in wedding dresses all crowded around a giant wedding cake, then dove in, tearing into it with their hands and faces, looking for a check for $50,000 buried somewhere in the cake.

    Since we strongly support any stunt that adds further humiliation to the experience of appearing in public on a hot day wearing a big ugly poofy bridal gown, we took some pictures.

    It was pretty sick.

    [tx Cushie for notification]

    May 12, 2005

    Unintended Consequences of Body Modification

    An article in the Styles section of today's Times highlights an ironic trend in women's fashion that shows just how warped our culture's concept of a regular female body has become. Now women who buy designer clothing, which we all know is usually cut to fit more slender women, are having to get their clothes altered so that they can accomodate their gigantic fake boobs. Yes, wealthy women who can lead the lifestyle that allows them to maintain a size 2 or 4 are having to buy dresses in size 10 (gasp!) because of their breast enlargements.

    I think we can safely assume that the average dress size for women who shop at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills is likely well under a size 12, but it seems more and more women in this neighborhood now need to buy larger sizes, at least for some regions of their bodies. And it's not because they've gained weight: "With many plastic surgeons saying that Los Angeles is the country's implant capital, the Beverly Hills branch of Neiman Marcus sells more dresses in Size 12 than any other, while Sizes 8 and 10 are the most popular for designer evening wear at other Neiman branches, said a buyer for the chain, who linked the phenomenon to customers who had surgically increased their busts." From 1997 (when enlargement surgery rates were relatively low after silicone implants went off the market) to today, enlargement surgery rates have gone up by 257%.

    When you consider that there are likely a number of women who have this fashion problem who went through some other form of body modification, like liposuction or stomach stapling, in order to get the rest of their bodies down to a size 2, who are then surgically changing their bodies again to reach another non-proportional and unnatural dimension, well, the layers of crazy really start to pile up.

    Thin women are also starting to realize the limitations of some women's clothing for the bustier among us. A clothing merchandiser in New York who had breast enlargement surgery says, "I gave up my wardrobe to show off my breasts. Your options are so much better, but it's funny: I used to wear button-down shirts, and now they don't fit. I might have to go up a size on the top if it's too tight around the chest, but then it does not fit in the shoulders or the arms."

    Maybe that's because clothes are still, quaintly, being designed to fit actual human bodies that adhere to some concept of proportionality. Women have long complained that designers make their clothes to fit only women on the smaller end of the spectrum, but at least those clothes fit bodies that naturally exist. Now more and more women want clothes to fit fake bodies that pretty much never occur without surgery. As one designer says of his industry's rigid adherence to the laws of nature, "You can't design a collection around a customer with a large chest, because it throws the proportion off. It's not realistic. When someone is a size D cup and a 2 waist, it's really a challenge."

    Ladies of Southern California: maybe it would be a lot simpler, and cheaper, to just leave your tits alone and be able to shop off the rack without paying the cost of your clothes all over again for alterations. Unless you're a stripper, in which case you probably buy most of your clothes as separate tops and bottoms, anyway.

    May 11, 2005

    An insightful psychological test

    Some researchers at the University of Missouri recently investigated how alcohol would influence the sexual stimulation of a bunch of undergraduate boys. Because these are very clever researchers, they pretty much assumed that many college guys would tend to rate the attractiveness of college girls higher if they had a few drinks first. But what they decided to test in this study is if brief exposure to masked words that are related to alcohol would have a similar effect. Basically, could they get some guys to respond to women the way they do when they're drunk just by showing them words like "beer"? Even if what they were shown was actually "xdbeerilq"?

    They sure could! [abstract of the article here] The researchers found that if men had previously indicated that they get a little extra romantic feeling when they've been drinking, they rate women as being more attractive than do men who claim no such lusty effects when they drink, after both sets of men are flashed with words like "rwqdrunkmi".

    What does this mean? The researchers conclude only that "the effects of alcohol expectancies on behavior are remarkably subtle and far-reaching." Just thinking about alcohol, even subconsciously, seems to produce the aphrodisiac effects we expect to experience when we drink. What I wonder is if guys who self-report that they become more interested in women after they drink are just generally more girl-crazy than guys who don't, um... OK, I'm trying to avoid the term "beer-goggles" here, but it looks like I can't get around it.

    So now I'd like to conduct a little test.

    1) Please answer the following questions:

    Do you tend to get that rogueish spark in your eye after you've had a few drinks?

    Have you ever made out with someone in the bathroom of a bar that you would probably not even notice on the subway?

    2) Now look at this:


    3) Now look at this picture and rate the attractiveness of the women you see.

    Yow! Pretty foxy right? No? Well, try doing a few shots of Wild Turkey, then repeat the test.

    May 3, 2005

    "Untitled Britney Spears Project"

    britney kevin head rags

    Word has come down from the creative minds at UPN that the Britney and Kevin Federline home videos - oh, sorry, "reality show" - finally has a name!

    Mark your calendar for the premiere of Britney and Kevin: Chaotic!

    uh - wha? Seriously, people, you have a month to come up with a catchy title, and you just randomly select something from Microsoft Word's thesaurus? Frankly, I'm insulted.

    Since I am just as familiar with MS Office functions as a UPN executive, I offer you these alternate show titles, suggested by Microsoft:

    Britney and Kevin: Disordered
    Britney and Kevin: Disorganized
    Britney and Kevin: Muddled
    Britney and Kevin: Confused
    Britney and Kevin: Messy
    Britney and Kevin: Untidy
    Britney and Kevin: Frenzied
    Britney and Kevin: Unruly
    Britney and Kevin: Anarchic

    Feel free to volunteer suggestions.

    April 21, 2005

    Important Alternative Soda

    This is not actually news, but is part of our ongoing effort to raise awareness of exciting and delicious snack items.

    Many Americans may have never tried Kola Champagne Soda, which seems to be a popular flavor in Jamaica, and possibly also Puerto Rico. I had never heard of it, but I've long been interested in regional sodas, and last night I bought a can of Good O Kola Champagne Soda at a bodega on the corner of 105th and 2nd, and it is an exceptionally fine drink.

    It tastes like cream soda mixed with Moxie. Also, the can design is simple and very pleasing. No production information on the can, but it is distrubuted through Good O Beverages in the Bronx.

    Good O Kola Champagne Soda

    [click on photo for larger image]

    You can order it from a store called Georgia Harvest--a 2 liter bottle of it for $1.09.

    In searching for more information about this soda, I came upon a very impressive online store in Texas that sells over a hundred interesting sodas. The Kentucky Nip Cherry Julep Soda sounds especially delightful, and does apparently taste like mint!

    Of course, my all-time favorite regional soda is produced by Squamscot Beverages in New Hampshire, and is called Yup, which I first purchased at Marelli's Fruit and Real Estate convenience store in Newmarket.

    April 18, 2005

    I guess I still don't get rhyming slang

    Maybe you've seen posters for the new movie It's All Gone Pete Tong in your local movie theater. And maybe, like me, you've become totally confused.

    This is the tagline on the posters:

    Pete Tong tagline

    So wait, I thought, Pete Tong is deaf? Why didn't I know anything about this? And who is that non-Pete Tong guy on the movie poster?

    Thankfully, Manohla Dargis has explained it all for me in her review. It turns out that Pete Tong is famous enough in England to have inspired his own bit of rhyming slang: "It's all gone Pete Tong" means "It's all gone wrong." The movie is a mockumentary about a fictitious DJ named Frankie Wilde who created the big Ibiza scene, got really rich, had it all, and then lost it when his hearing started to deteriorate.

    Through the course of the movie, we see many scenes of Frankie's wild hijinks and opulent DJ lifestyle (a culture rich with material for satire--why hasn't someone, besides DJ King Pigeon, done this before?) until he starts to lose his hearing, and his mixing and production skills go down the toilet, his friends start to abandon him, and finally, there's a scene in which he stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean, unable to hear the crashing waves, and clutches his head while screaming at the sky.

    Manohla Dargis pretty much likes it. A brief bio of Frankie Wilde on the movie's website suggests that the filmmakers understand the humor of their subject material. On Frankie Wilde's enormous influence on music production trends: "Frankie’s sets were wildly varied. He was the first club DJ to integrate rock elements into a chunk of house and techno. Frankie could easily segue from 4-on-the-floor style Chicago house, to an obscure Rolling Stones track, to the Sex Pistols, and then onto a ridiculously hard piece of Belgian techno. It was shambolic, but it was passionately felt, and the crowds went absolutely mental for it. Many critics and music pundits believe that it was Frankie’s devotion to eclectic mixes that gave rise to the current vogue for 'mash-ups,' in which two songs from disparate genres are blended together to make something totally new. Every hip-hop DJ nowadays who self-consciously squeezes a Steely Dan song into a set of rap owes his fee to Frankie. 'Cut me and I bleed vinyl,' he would scream to the throngs."

    Here's the official movie site, where you can watch the trailer (it's funny) featuring many cameos from real DJs. And here's a fake site about Frankie Wilde.

    April 15, 2005

    The Pharmaceutical Revolution - no, sorry, not that one.

    typical prescription bottles

    29-year old Deborah Adler is about to be a gajillionaire.

    According to this NY Magazine piece, Adler decided to update the standard prescription pill bottle after her grandmother accidentally took the wrong medication. Realizing that current drug packaging "is not just unattractive - it's actually dangerous," Adler created a revolutionary new pill bottle for her thesis project at the School of Visual Arts. A creative director for Target saw it, loved it, and now ClearRx is available in Target pharmacies across the land. Here are her updates: ClearRx solution

    • New "D" shaped container offers a flat surface to read the full label
    • Name of the drug is printed on the top of the bottle, so you can identify it if it's stored in a drawer
    • Separate color-coded rings identify which family member the medication is for
    • Usage info can be tucked behind the label, instead of stapled onto the paper bag you throw away when you get home
    • The word "daily" is used instead of "Once", which may be confused for the Spanish word for "eleven"

    This is exactly the kind of industrial design story I love. Like Sam Farber, who created Good Grips™ kitchen tools for his arthritic wife, Adler saw a simple need that hadn't occured to anyone else and addressed it.

    This is another example of Target's move towards cornering the market on speedy and efficient health care. The company is also opening "MinuteClinics" in many stores, which are staffed with physician's assistants and nurses who can dispense basic medications, kind of like a drive-through doctor's office.

    Anyway, read the whole article. It's neat. Now, if she can just find some way for us to afford prescription medications.

    April 13, 2005

    American Baby Names

    I don't have much in the way of analysis about this, but Slate is running a series of pieces on trends in baby names in America, excerpted from a new book called Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, which offers some alternative (read: brilliant, sometimes crackpot) explanations of social phenomena in this crazy world we live in. I've always found trends in names to be fascinating, especially as related to class, region, and race, so here are a few links.

    Monday's excerpt from the book examines baby names popular among different races (Em, you and I have total white girl names,) names that span multiple races, and how people's lives might be affected by having a typically black or white name. Tuesday's excerpt is about baby names popular among different classes, the growth of aspirational baby names, and how names once popular with the elite lose their value when poor people start adopting them. In response to this piece about certain names moving from one class to another: I don't care if it was popular among the wealthy educated classes at one point--Amber is still a stupid name.

    And finally, here is an interesting bit of programming that ADM sent me a while back that I've been hanging onto, hoping to share: a Baby Name Wizard (requires java) that graphs the popularity of any name, or group of similar names, over decades. Very cool.

    April 6, 2005

    Fat Actresses

    skinny delta and kirstie

    In today's NYT "At Lunch With" column, Frank Bruni shares a tasteful meal in Midtown with Delta Burke. Naturally, Delta is featured because she's currently starring in the Broadway revival of Steel Magnolias. Haha! No, I'm kidding. If you read the article twice, as I did, you might pick up on that. Actually Delta is featured because she's fat.

    In case you didn't know that Delta was fat, Bruni sets the scene by opening the article thusly: "She grabbed hold of a French fry. She dragged it through ketchup. And then, without apology or visible regret, she ate it."

    Just how fat is she? Well, Bruni helpfully mentions that Delta weighed 110 pounds as a beauty queen; 145 when she started on Designing Women, 200 when she left the show and 215 at her highest weight. Today she weighs 165 and is 5 foot 6 and appears "chubby". Surprisingly, her BMI and graphs of weight gain and loss were not included as sidebars.

    I find this particularly interesting because previous "At Lunch With" columns tend to focus on career achievements and interesting celebrity factoids - John Grisham's legal background for instance, or how circus members live on the off-seasons. In Delta's feature, we learn that she was thin and then fat; she was nominated for 2 Emmys for being fat*; she designed fat lady clothing; she's not quite so fat now; and she loves "Snickers bars, as well as coffee ice cream and macaroni and cheese." Why? Because Delta's career is Professional Fat Person.

    But what's this? Even though she's fat, Bruni notes with astonishment that Delta only eats a quarter of her cheeseburger and orders a low-calorie sorbet for dessert. Well, no fucking shit. Bruni clearly doesn't know the first rule about being overweight, which is that people who are self-conscious about their weight never eat around other people - particularly reporters for national newspapers. After being professionally fat for twenty years, Delta knows better than to eat a whole hamburger in front of someone. She clearly went into this interview knowing what it was about; she wasn't going to be asked about returning to theater, or what it's like being on Broadway. She wasn't going to talk about working with Frances Sternhagen or even asked to dish about Annie Potts. She was going to have her eating habits and appearance scrutinized and published in the New York Times.

    Frankly, I'm surprised she didn't order a garden salad.

    * And if you've ever seen the episode of Designing Women that she was nominated for (in which she goes back to her high-school reunion and wins the "Most Changed" award), you already know that she can act the harem pants off Kirstie Alley. And yes, I love Designing Women, and I will not apologize for it.

    April 4, 2005

    No one likes to do it

    Don't worry, it's not just you. No one is having sex.

    At a recent gathering of hot young women, ages 24-26, living the single life in Manhattan, the New York Times hosted a discussion of sex and dating. In the resulting article, the featured women are so averse to sex, serious relationships, dating, and pretty much anything other than maybe kissing acquaintances in a bar, that I can't imagine how anyone in this city is ever going to get any action ever again.

    "It's not that people aren't dating," explained Jessica Rozler, co-author of The Hookup Handbook: A Single Girl's Guide to Living It Up (if by "living it up" you mean "going on a date or two then running home to worry if people think you're a slut.") She continues, "It's that there's this weird gray area. People still want to be in relationships, but they don't want to be settling."

    OK, so single women in New York like to date lots of men and maybe aren't so into having serious boyfriends. Yet, these women also seem to shun having sex outside of relationships: "Most girls don't have one-night stands," one discussion participant said. "They might have one or two in their life."

    "A lot of girls are not having casual sex," explained Andrea Lavinthal, the book's other co-author and (not surprisingly) an editor at Cosmopolitan, a magazine mostly notable for its advice on trapping rich men into marrying you.

    So there's no casual sex, no serious relationships; the most these ladies seem to want is a few low-key dates here and there. Their alarming self-restraint is also well illustrated by their definition of the phrase "hooking up": "Most women at the club expounded happily on what a hookup meant for them. 'Late-night grinding on the dance floor, maybe a little groping' was one version, said Kate Kilgore, who is in public relations at Victoria's Secret Beauty. The few men who spoke up seemed to find the elastic nature of the term somewhat tiresome. 'There are so many definitions,' said Corey Zolcinski, a commercial real estate representative and disc jockey. 'Some people think that it means meeting for a drink.'"

    I don't know about you, but when I was 24, "hooking up" to me did not mean meeting for a drink.

    So what's the story with these people? Are those of us in the late-20's/early-30's generation just a bunch of licentious tramps in comparison to these Doris Days in their early 20's? And what about the recent trend among teenagers of having "friends with benefits", pretty much meaning random sex with casual acquaintances, often met online? ADM points out that the analog to teenagers' "friends with benefits" seems to be "boyfriends without benefits" among these early-20's people. It all sounds very bad.

    In a piece about the sexually messed-up country of Japan in today's Guardian, we learn that there is a growing problem among Japanese married couples in which they don't have sex, ever. Like, not even one time. The Japanese birthrate hit an all-time low of 1.29 in 2003, and there are more and more women who complain that they have never had sex with their husbands, or do it less than once per year. Marriage rates are also falling, and the government is understandbly worried about what this will mean for the country's population in a few years.

    [Note: I think we can all assume, as the article does, that Japanese men in these kinds of relationships are still having loads of sex with hookers. It's just the wives that get nothing.]

    Unsatisfied with this deal, these women are starting to patronize a new kind of clinic in the suburbs of Tokyo, which offers frustrated wives a catalog of men for them to fuck. The guy who runs the clinic (I guess I should say "clinic", because it's really some sort of dating service) says, "The women who come to see me love their husbands and aren't looking for a divorce. The problem is that their husbands lose interest in sex or don't want sex from the start." After a counseling session, the ladies browse through photographs of 45 men, mostly professionals in their 40s, and pick one to go on dates with and then make regular appointments in hotel rooms.

    "Mr Kim dismissed charges that his service was little more than a male prostitution ring. 'The men volunteer and pay half the hotel and restaurant bills, so legally there is absolutely nothing wrong with it,' he said."

    I'm glad these Japanese women are finally getting some action, but it's a scary prospect for the chaste young ladies in New York: even after they get married and actually decide to put out, they still might not be getting any.

    April 1, 2005

    Race to the Pearly Gates*

    In the excitement of this Sweeps Week of Death, one passing has slipped by without much notice - poet Robert Creeley died on Wednesday. I have a particular soft spot for Creeley, because "I Know a Man" is the first poem I ever learned by heart:

    As I sd to my
    friend, because I am
    always talking, - John, I
    sd, which was not his
    name, the darkness sur-
    rounds us, what
    can we do against
    it, or else, shall we &
    why not, buy a goddamn big car,
    drive, he sd, for
    christ's sake, look
    out where yr going.

    At my tender age, I didn't know what the hell this poem meant. I just knew that my dad, who studied with Creeley at SUNY Buffalo, liked it a lot. Also, it had a swear word in it. (For the record, these are the same reasons I liked "Taxi Driver" at an age where any responsible parent would never have let me watch it.)

    Not everyone enjoyed Robert Creeley as much as my father did; John Simon famously said about his poems: "They are short; they are not short enough." Which is how I feel about most Simon reviews, so I guess we're even.

    Creeley, Johnny Cochran, Frank Perdue, and probably by tomorrow, the Pope. I can't imagine a better card game than that.

    My father adds: I've been reading the obit in the Times as it has evolved from note to notice, the photo - that's as he looked when I was in his "Thematic Developments in American Poetry" course. His first day, he shrugged, "I don't know what that means."

    (* tx Kathleen)

    March 31, 2005

    Help Me Achieve Snack Nirvana+

    When The Phantom Menace came out, I was so totally beside myself about the prospect of a new Star Wars movie that I wanted the entire movie-going event to be entirely different from anything I had ever experienced before. That meant seeing the film in a new theatre, with a never-before assembled group of friends, and obviously, while consuming a completely untried snack food. Because of its total decadence (peanuts, peanut butter, caramel, nougat, and chocolate) and my unfamiliarity with the product, I selected the Reese's Nutrageous™ as the Official Candy of The Phantom Menace.

    Needless to say, I now have a very bad association with the Nutrageous™.

    But that doesn't mean I don't still love a ridiculous, over-the-top candy bar. Which is why, when I saw an ad for THIS:

    Hershey's Take 5

    I fucking flipped out.

    In case you're wondering, the "5" in question here are:
    Peanut Butter and

    People, this is not only a new level of delicious extravagance - it's an ingenious combo. Is there anything better than the combination of sweet and salty in a single treat? I'm not the only one who thinks so: our favorite snack consumer advocates have given the Hershey's Take 5™ a Snack Satisfaction Index of 9.3 out of 10.

    Again, even though I've been searching for a week New York City seems to lag behind the rest of the whole goddamm country when it comes to innovative snack foods. Readers, have you seen this candy anywhere? If you can find me a retailer, there's a Take 5™ in it for you, too.

    Hershey's Take 5

    Thanks to reader suggestions, the elusive Take 5™ was finally hunted down in the secondary candy aisle of a local Eckerd. The verdict? Frankly, I was disappointed. Like many Hershey's products, the Take 5™ is just too damn sweet. The combination of caramel, milk chocolate, AND sweetened peanut butter is way too much. My suggestion to the Hershey's product development team? Eliminate the caramel and introduce a Dark Chocolate Take 4™ - now, you'd really have something there. I'd take a case.

    March 28, 2005

    I'll decide what drugs you can take, missy +

    The latest group of control-freaks advocating for legislature that would allow them to tell lots of other people what to do appears to be pharmacists. The Washington Post today has a terrifying article on a topic I have been trying to avoid in the hope that it would all get sorted out before articles like this started getting written.

    The topic is this: some pharmacists decide that the drugs doctors prescribe for their patients are unethical, and therefore refuse to dispense them. So which drugs are these pharmacists so morally opposed to? Viagra? Xanax? OxyContin, or other addictive drugs that are often abused? Nope! The drugs they most commonly refuse to dispense are birth control pills and morning-after emergency contraception pills. Women's rights and reproductive rights organizations are freaking out, anti-birth-control Christian fundamentalist groups are desperate to protect pro-life pharmacists, many of whom get reprimanded or fired from their jobs, and the American Pharmacists Association and lawmakers aren't sure what to do.

    And women are terrified.

    Kathleen Pulz and her husband got a prescription for the morning-after pill when the condom they were using broke. Their local Walgreens pharmacy in Milwaukee refused to fill it. "I couldn't believe it," said Pulz, 44, who with her husband had long ago decided they could not afford a fifth child. "How can they make that decision for us? I was outraged. At the same time, I was sad that we had to do this. But I was scared. I didn't know what we were going to do."

    Suzanne Richards, 21, had a prescription for the morning-after pill that was rejected by a drive-through Brooks Pharmacy in Laconia, N.H., and by the time she found another pharmacy that would fill it, the 72 hours in which the pill had to be used had long passed. "When he told me he wouldn't fill it, I just pulled over in the parking lot and started crying," said Richards, a single mother of a 3-year-old who runs her own cleaning service. "I just couldn't believe it. I was just trying to be responsible."

    Responsibility is certainly not something these renegade pharmacists are thinking about, especially those that not only refuse to fill a perfectly legal prescription, but also refuse to pass it along to another pharmacy. The American Pharmacists Association's policy for their members is that pharmacists can conscientiously refuse to fill prescriptions as long as they support their customers' legal right to get their medications some other way.

    But that's not how pro-life advocates see it. The seriously misguided and delusional Karen L. Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life, thinks it's fine for pharmacists to hold legal prescriptions hostage, refusing to transfer them to another pharmacy. She says, "That's like saying, 'I don't kill people myself but let me tell you about the guy down the street who does.' What's that saying? 'I will not off your husband, but I know a buddy who will?' It's the same thing." Yes, she is equating using birth control with assassination. Brauer was fired from a Kmart pharmacy in Delhi, Ohio, for refusing to fill birth control prescriptions.

    Now this one will really drive you crazy. Brauer goes on to say, "Our group was founded with the idea of returning pharmacy to a healing-only profession. What's been going on is the use of medication to stop human life. That violates the ideal of the Hippocratic oath that medical practitioners should do no harm." Who is she suggesting is being harmed when a pharmacist fills a prescription for some birth control pills? Some unfertilized eggs? People who are being responsible and avoiding a future of child-support payments for unwanted children? Durex stockholders? The Pope?

    The issue hasn't hit the courts hard yet, but here's what the article says about what's coming down the pipeline: "Pharmacists are regulated by state laws and can face disciplinary action from licensing boards. But the only case that has gotten that far involves Neil T. Noesen, who in 2002 refused to fill a University of Wisconsin student's birth control pill prescription at a Kmart in Menomonie, Wis., or transfer the prescription elsewhere. An administrative judge last month recommended Noesen be required to take ethics classes, alert future employers to his beliefs and pay what could be as much as $20,000 to cover the costs of the legal proceedings. The state pharmacy board will decide whether to impose that penalty next month.

    Wisconsin is one of at least 11 states considering 'conscience clause' laws that would protect pharmacists such as Noesen. Four states already have laws that specifically allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions that violate their beliefs. At the same time, at least four states are considering laws that would explicitly require pharmacists to fill all prescriptions."

    This could turn into a huge mess on the state level, and might precipitate yet another federal case on an issue that really has nothing to do with anybody besides patients and their doctors. - Amy

    Attempting to regulate healthcare issues like they are ethical issues is total bullshit. Due to the sad, broken state of our healthcare system these women are most likely paying for these medications out of their own pockets, not through any kind of federal program or even private insurance (which is a whole other issue). It's ludicrous for the government to attempt to limit access to FDA-approved medications for which they are not paying, and it's a pharmacist's job to safely and accurately dispense those medications, not to pass lifestyle judgements.

    To paraphrase Will Ferrell, these kinds of arguments make me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. How do people object to family planning, but allow children to live in poverty with no health coverage? How do people decide it's unethical to let a vegetative woman die, but also propose $15 billion in cuts to Medicaid with no regard for the family that will be bankrupted paying for her care? - Emily

    March 23, 2005

    The future of Europe today! Or in 2006, anyway


    Remember a couple of years ago when France decided that their language, culture, and unjustified superior attitude were being threatened by popular usage of the word "email"? They decided to ban it from official use, replacing it with the French "courriel", which might have been a reasonable move that had some marginal impact on the world if they had done it, like, 10 years earlier.

    Anyway, now all of Europe has made a similar bafflingly outdated gesture toward modernity by creating a new extension for internet addresses: .eu. Which will launch in 2006. It took the EU from 1997, when they first starting discussing the idea, until 2002 to apply to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers for the new extension. Oh EU, you silly Old World slow pokes, you!

    March 9, 2005

    Whole Foods reaches new level of posh indulgence+

    If one sign of a society in decline is outrageous and overbearing decadence, then the new Whole Foods grocery store in Austin, Texas is a bad sign for the future of America. Here are some of the features at the new 80,000 square foot store:

    • 14 pastry chefs making custom orders
    • a seafood counter with staff people throwing fish around, a la Pike Place Market in Seattle
    • an on-site playground
    • an on-site massage therapist
    • an all-organic clothing section with dressing rooms
    • a walk-in beer cooler with 800 varieties
    • and a flowing fountain of chocolate

    This new, manic apotheosis of yuppie excess might be all a little overwhelming for the shopper who maybe just wants to buy some milk and a newspaper. Whole Foods' all-organic policy for the products they sell also seems to serve as psychological forgiveness for customers who spend wads of money on overpriced luxury foods. "Whole Foods offers a psychological absolution of our excesses," says Jerald Jellison, psychology professor at University of Southern California. "After filling your cart with sinful wine, beer, cheese and breads, you rationalize it's healthy, so that cancels out the negatives."

    I find the defensiveness of Whole Foods' senior staff a little unnerving, too. "We're not Holy Foods," explains co-President Walter Robb, "We're Whole Foods." "We're not a religion. We're not a cult," company founder John Mackey says. I wish one of these guys had said, "We're not an emblem of overindulgence and hyper-consumerism whose large profits* are made by getting wannabe-yuppies to overspend on fashionable groceries that are not really that different from what you can get at Safeway," but I don't think they're that cavalier.

    Also, for all their self-righteous goody-goody posturing, Whole Foods are a bunch of union-busters. More on this shortly from Emily. - Amy

    Whole Foods has built a wildly successful business model by going in the exact opposite direction from Wal-Mart. While Wal-Mart essentially forced the supermarket workers' strike in California by undercutting those chains' prices, Whole Foods appeals to the bright-eyed liberals who would never dream of crossing a picket line - even if it means paying twice as much for a quart of milk. Whole Foods doesn't sell organic produce; they sell a lifestyle. In this terrific Fortune article about the manifest destiny of Whole Foods, founder Mackey is right on target when he defines his shoppers as people who "want to make a statement about who they are by where they shop."

    But the company does share some alarming similarities with Wal-Mart. They've branched out their product line to ensure that even if you're just coming in for organic asparagus, well, you might as well grab your coffee and cereal and some toilet bowl cleaner too. The average size of a Whole Foods store is now 35,000 square feet; they own many of their distributors (such as a fish supplier in Mass.); and they sure hate unions. In fact, Mackey not only calls unions "highly unethical and self-interested," he also compares them to herpes: "It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover." That sure is a good attitude to have if you're planning on yearly revenues over $10 billion by 2010!

    People - I'm sorry to tell you this, but even Ben & Jerry sold out to Unilever. No money-making corporations are really out there to serve the greater good. Businesses are businesses, and the community benefits, smiling employees, and free playgrounds are just pleasant side effects. Does that mean Whole Foods doesn't have delicious lime-marinated tofu? Of course not! But buying it doesn't make you a better person, and don't be fooled into thinking it does.

    I'm particularly interested to see how Whole Foods' New York City stores do in the next few years. So far, the company has only opened stores in areas relatively underserved by grocery chains. This spring, a store will open up across the street from the bustling Union Square farmers market. Will customers choose pricey packaged organic foods over buying the same goods cheaper, and straight from the source? Whole Foods is also planning to build a Brooklyn store in the next few years, in a community that has not only an active farmers market, but the nation's largest food co-op (and easily the most fanatical co-op member base.)

    I also might add, even though folks are lining up at the 14-man pastry station, it may not be the best time to invest in Whole Foods. New accounting regulations will require the company to deduct the stock options it loves to give "team members" as compensation from earnings. The answer? Start limiting employee stock options, which will also limit employee compensation. Mackey calls the rules "stupid" and claims that the company is growing so fast that investors won't even notice, but that remains to be seen. - Emily

    * a typical supermarket sells south of $400 per square foot; a Whole Foods store exceeds $800

    March 7, 2005

    Update: Diary of a Mad Black Woman and cultural bias +

    The other day, Amy wrote about the dust-up over various professional critics' reviews of the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I added a comment to her post, and someone claiming to be Roger Ebert replied to that comment. Whether it was really him or not [Update: It was really him], it seems the issue is complex enough to explore a little further. So, here's the context, followed by my response to Ebert's comment.

    My original comment:

    it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever. it's like saying brer rabbit sucks because it's hard to understand. i don't know but i'm guessing that's what pissed all those people off...the idea that ebert et al. didn't even bother trying to evaluate it against their standards, something he's actually usually pretty good about.

    n.b. i haven't seen the movie or even read the reviews discussed. i'm just reacting to what you [Amy] wrote. sorry if i'm way off base. -ADM

    The Ebert reply:

    "it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever."

    Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture? That will come as a surprise to Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson, Carl Franklin and the Hughes Brothers. The standards I applied in that review I would also apply to films from any other culture on earth. -Roger Ebert

    Me again:

    "Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture?"

    Yes, that's what I'm suggesting, although I might say, "...need not have all the same standards." (By "standard," I mean a measure by which something is determined to be good or right.) I am also suggesting that many female directors do not have all the same standards as male directors and that American directors do not have the same standards as Japanese or French ones. Is this a radical position? Regardless, there are many ways to make this argument:

    • If standards for what constitutes "good" art are not in part culturally specific, then there is only one standard, and everyone should meet that standard, regardless of their culture. And this standard, of course, is created by the "dominant"* culture. Isn't this idea -- that something is bad because it is different -- at the heart of racism?
    • Relatedly, if a race/culture operating within another "dominant" culture did not have different standards, then such things as protest art based on racial/cultural/sexual inequalities would either not exist or be considered worthless, since those within the dominant (i.e., more pervasive) culture reviewing the work would be offended, rather than inspired, and would-be artists would be so content in the dominant culture that they would feel no need to make the art in the first place. This is one of the reasons that we have the "rediscovery" of artists like Zora Neale Hurston and the time these artists were working, the dominant culture was not open to the notion that such stuff was "good." Now, with our different cultural backgrounds, we see that it is.
    • Being part of a different culture affects both the art you produce and your perception of and response to other art. Seinfeld is funny because we (Americans) are familiar with what comes after "Did you ever notice..." If Seinfeld were black and talked all about things that were similarly familiar only to black people, would white people think he was funny? If not, would that make him a bad comedian? Of course not. His jokes aren't funny because they are universally appealing; they are funny because they appeal to a subset of people who share a culture. I believe the same can be true of movies.
    • If you argue that many African-American filmmakers do not have have different standards for their work -- standards derived in part from their racial identity -- it seems to me you're also arguing that their cultural backgrounds do not inform their ideas about what makes a good movie. I think you can surmise from Spike Lee's work that one standard he had when making some of his films is that they should impart a political message (or at least communicate some aspects of an African-American experience). If he didn't believe these things contributed to making a good movie, why would he include them? If that belief didn't come from his experience as an African-American, then where did it come from and why aren't white directors who grew up in the suburbs making movies like Lee's? I don't think you can reasonably suggest that Spike Lee's experience as an African-American has not shaped his standards for what makes a good movie. Can you look at the more political Spike Lee films and say, "A white person from wealthy suburb would have made the same movie"?**

    The arguments above mainly deal with the political content of art, but I think you can extend the principles to suggest that "standards" influenced by cultural background involve not just the content of a film, but also its form. (People loved radio shows before there was TV.) I don't know for sure whether cultural differences make certain audiences more receptive to things like dramatic shifts in tone than others, but I do think that the possibility exists, and I certainly think that this receptiveness can be encouraged by favorable responses to the content of the film -- responses I have already said are likely to be influenced by one's background. In the case of Diary, I think Amy's orginal implication is probably correct: the audiences didn't evaluate the movie based on how closely it hewed to genre and narrative conventions; they just thought it was funny and, I guess, emotionally resonant.

    Before writing this, I finally read Roger Ebert's review and his follow-up piece. They focus on inconsistencies in tone and the lack of a single character's believability within the context of the other characters. I think Ebert could make a reasonable case that the standard of having consistency among characters is something that is (and should be) almost universally considered a 'standard' for good story-telling. But: plenty of people seemed to enjoy the film (i.e., thought it was "good") despite its violation of this standard. Now, I don't know if the people who feel this way about this particular film are largely black or white or male or female, but -- assuming that they do have something in common culturally/racially (as anecdotal evidence suggests) -- I think the reaction of these audience members, as contrasted with the critics' responses, is evidence that audiences can have different standards based on their cultural backgrounds.

    The comment above suggests Ebert would apply the same standards*** he mentioned in his pieces to any movie on Earth. I think that's fair, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that those standards are based in part on cultural background. In his follow-up, Ebert offers consistency of tone as a "standard," and seems to suggest that this is a universal standard of measure, not one based on his cultural background. But, that's what culture is. Your cultural background is made up of things that you often take for granted and assume to be universal, even when they really only apply to you and people like you.**** As such, these "standards" need not necessarily be shared by either filmmakers or audiences.

    It's not reasonable to assume that Ebert or any other critic should be able to review films from the perspective of all audiences, but I think the view that one standard should apply to the art of all cultures is not a valid one.

    *This word makes me a little uncomfortable. By "dominant," I just mean that the culture is the most pervasive, most supported by economic resources, and garners more attention (academic/critical/msm) than others.

    **Let's not forget that the year Do the Right Thing was eligible, Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture. Was this decision universally acclaimed by African-Americans who must share the same standards as the Academy voters?

    ***e.g., "a movie should discover the correct tone for its material, and stick to it" [source]

    ****When I was growing up, I thought everybody had an air conditioner.

    ps. Apologies to any CompLit grad students who may be reading this. I only made it through Cultural Relativism 101.

    March 6, 2005

    Straphangers Weigh In on New Bravo Season

    Not since the great Osama/Kerry debate of fall 2004 have so many Sharpie™-owning citizens weighed in on a single topic. Is it the Iraqi elections that have Brooklynites so fired up? The privatization of Social Security? The new Ikea in Red Hook?

    No, it is something far more contentious: Bravo's joint advertising campaign for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and new companion show, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. Professional critics have also been divided on the issue: while Tom Shales calls Girl "moving", the New York Post dismisses it as "pathetically shallow." But the folks waiting for the Manhattan-bound F train have their own opinions:

    queer eye poster

    While some are concerned about religious issues,

    queer eye poster grafitti

    others are more upset about the shows' family values.

    your mother's balls

    Some offer inexplicable commentary:

    queer eye poster grafitti
    queer eye poster grafitti strange

    While some go for the obvious:

    loves the cock

    And some people just have a whole lot to say:

    queer eye poster grafitti

    While the nearby FreshDirect posters and movie ads remain untouched, every day brings a new addition in the Queer Eye culture wars. If this is how the good people of Brooklyn respond to a simple makeover show, I can't even imagine what a subway ad for legalized gay marriage would look like.

    February 25, 2005

    TiVo: the new monkey on your back +

    antennae or devil horns?

    New York may still be the city that never sleeps (thank you Bloomberg for rejecting that bullshit 1 am nightlife closing time proposal) but lately, New Yorkers who stay up all night are alone in their tiny little apartments, watching TV. Yes, TiVo and other DVRs have turned a city of energetic go-getters into drooling sloths. Or rather, they've been turned into guilt-ridden freaks who feel bad about not spending even more of their time watching TV. The Post profiles these once active New Yorkers who lately vacillate between catching up on their shows in 8-hour viewing marathons and stressing over all the TV they're still not able to watch.

    There has been a glut of articles written on the phenomenon of Too Much Media these days--there are more books, magazines, movies, TV shows, advertisements, cultural trends, websites, albums, news programs and celebrity scandals than anyone could possibly digest. And despite our best efforts to keep track of it all, say by buying a TiVo to record all those worthwhile shows you miss every week, we end up feeling even more behind when we still can't keep up with the onslaught with technological help.

    The Post article says, "People who thought [their DVR] would give them more free time are struggling to watch every show on their lists - so they can delete them and start piling up new ones." One stressed-out guy says of his huge list of recorded shows, "The list is like a set of tasks I have to complete, or I feel like a failure. I spend all day making lists, just to go home to another list!" Considering the TiVo taglines like "You've got a life. TiVo gets it" and "Do More. Miss Nothing", the increased sense of obligation and stress that its customers are experiencing results from a misjudgement of the product; in order to miss nothing, TiVo users have to basically do nothing but watch TV.

    In our desire to watch TV more efficiently, we end up watching so much we have time for little else. One sad DVR owner describes how he and his girlfriend spent their nights: "We used to come home from work, and she'd have her shows programmed, and I'd have mine, so we'd take turns watching each others' shows, and eventually one of us would get tired and go to bed." The couple has since split up. "It's crazy, because I don't watch much TV normally," he said.

    Since 2/3 of Amy's Robot uses DVRs (and would probably have written better posts about this issue than the 1/3 who doesn't own one,) and because a rep from Time Warner Cable says their DVRs are still "flying out the door," we can expect to see more and more New Yorkers engaging in the TV marathons that some of us have experienced first hand. TV stations' fondness for programming back-to-back reruns of shows like Law & Order, Melrose Place, and, oddly, The Munsters only enables TiVo owners to spend even more time plowing through the hours of shows lovingly recorded for them. We've known people to have over 90 episodes of Law & Order on their TiVo hard drive at once.

    Of course, even before the days of the DVR, some of us still engaged in guilt-driven accumulation of media that we knew we would probably never get to. I recently renewed my subscription to Harper's magazine for a foolishly optimistic two more years, even though I have a growing stack of unread issues already, and have yet to read more than one issue from 2004. I think we all collectively, as a culture, have to put some effort into letting some of this stuff go, and easing up on all this obsessive media collecting.

    It's OK. You can just delete those Malcolm in the Middle episodes. The new ones aren't as funny, anyway. -Amy

    In my experience, the feeling of failure that accompanies not watching all your shows goes away after a while, as does the desire to record stuff just for the sake of recording it. On the other hand, if you really like your shows -- be it Malcolm in the Middle (which is hilarious by the way...who knew?) or The Munsters -- then happiness is a full Tivo (or, nearly full, anyway). Tivo enables me to give shows a try without thinking about it or putting effort (heh) into it, shows that I would have never though to sit down and actually watch at a pre-determined time and so would never have seen without it.

    These "I feel like a failure b/c I can't keep up with Tivo" stories have been coming out for a while now, and there's always a fresh set of despair-filled consumers who are a couple of months into their new DVR-driven life, always with a ready-made quote. Eventually, though, these people will enter the second stage of their relationship with Tivo, the guilt-free one, and will forget the stresses of the early days. -ADM

    February 23, 2005

    Next target: AARP

    Cerative Response Concepts, who are the same consulting group who worked with Swift Vets for Truth during the presidential campaign, have gotten to work on another key item on the Bush agenda, and guess what? They're using unethical and confusing methods to degrade another opponent of the Administration. USA Next is a conservative lobby group who hired them to create an ad attacking AARP, who have (obviously) expressed criticism of the Bush plan (which, in the words of Billionaires for Bush, seeks to make Social Security neither.) They also attack AARP in a number of pieces on their website.

    This is the ad, with a graphic big red X on the solider, and big green Checkmark on the couple [see complete ad here]:

    USA Next ad

    Here's a letter from AARP about their stance on Social Security.

    February 9, 2005

    Slavery and America

    Another big PBS series: Slavery and the Making of America, which debuts tonight. Four different producers created each of the four parts of the series, which move chronologically from the first slaves brought to the early American colonies to Restoration and the Compromise of 1877. The philosophy of the series seems to be that not only is slavery a central element of our country's history and identity, but much of the wealth and power that America has today have their roots in slavery. The whole series is narrated by (one guess)--Morgan Freeman.

    Tonight's first segment about the early days of American slavery includes some interesting elements. The Daily News review says, "In the beginning, Slavery notes, slaves had some rights, leverage and voice. Then gradually they were separated from other workers, including white indentured servants, until they became virtual nonpersons, human farm animals, given none of the rights of 'Americans.'"

    The next two segments air next Wednesday.