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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - July 2004

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SUBJECT:
Reason #14 I Love Cable
DATE:
July-31-2004

My Comcast OnDemand cable TV service, for the next two weeks, will offer free on-demand replays of any of the speeches from the Democratic national convention. They're all listed by the speakers' names under the News & Info section under the Election 2004 subheading. I can only assume they're going to do this for Repulicans too, and probably the debates as well. I bet it actually counts toward their FCC-mandated quota for public service programming.

I just want to say I think that was a stroke of genius. On my ever-growing "pro/con" list for Comcast, they get a check in the "pro" column for that one.

-- mm

Still waitin' for the "and funnier"? Give it up, I'm telling you.


SUBJECT:
There Is a Difference
DATE:
July-30-2004

I could only stomach a few news highlights of the big closing night of the DNC. I really hate these things: political lovefests innately without substance. While the Republican dealie is sure to be the same bit of content-free claptrap, they will have the handicap of not being able to rally 'round righteous indignation over the Iraq war. They'll just have to fall back on their old chestnut of making a word that, etymologically speaking, implies freedom and generosity sound like an insult. Hey, if it ain't broke...

With the partisan hubub nicely coming to a boil right on schedule, it gets me to wondering if you can really chart out any substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans. Here goes:

DEMOCRATS REPUBLICANS
Support abortion Support capital punishment
Lots of Catholics and Jews Lots of Protestants and Born-Agains
Oppose gay marriage; support civil unions Oppose gay marriage; pretend headset cut out when asked about civil unions
Say they care about the poor Say they care about the middle class
Are wealthy patricians Are wealthy patricians
Have no clue how to fix the economy Have no clue the economy needs fixing
Strangely unembarrassed by Al Sharpton Strangely unembarrassed by Rush Limbaugh
Invoke Hollywood celebrities to endorse candidates Turn Hollywood celebrities into candidates
Believe George W. Bush is incompetent to run the country Believe George W. Bush is incompetent to run the country

etc., etc.

Hey, here's an idea. Why don't we let a Republican be president for a while, then a Democrat... then switch... then switch again. This way, everybody has somebody to be for or against from time to time, nobody feels slighted that their pet legislative initiatives don't get air time, and the country chugs on, quietly run by multinational corporations as always.

Anybody got a better idea? I'd love to hear it.

-- mm

What did I say about shorter and funnier before? So sue me. I'm not runnin' for anything.


SUBJECT:
But What Am I Running For?
DATE:
July-29-2004

Man, these blog entries are getting longer and longer.

Starting today and lasting for at least a week (but don't hold me to that), I'm going to make them shorter and funnier. I've been trying to do that more with my latest fiction as well.

Shorter and funnier. That's my campaign promise to you.

-- mm

Note: since this is the introductory one in the series, it is automatically exempted from the "and funnier" part.


SUBJECT:
Save the Drama for Obama
DATE:
July-28-2004

Everybody's all abuzz about "not-elected-Illinois-senator-yet" (I guess it's a lock at this point) Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic convention last night. His much-ballyhooed speech has the papers hailing him as the future of the Democratic party. I didn't see it live, but caught a web video of it on C-SPAN and read the transcript via the Washington post site.

First off, let me say that it was a perfectly fine speech, as such things go. I heard as good at every competition on the college speaking circuit, but he certainly made folks like--oh, for example, Ted Kennedy--sound like a meandering, slurring has-been. It was, in every detail, a textbook speech. I could analyze the classic rhetorical devices in it blow-by-blow (asyndeton, polysyndeton, chiasmus, anaphora, procatalepsis, etc.*). Change a few of the references and one of Aristotle's C-students could have written it, and any Equity-wannabe from an Off-Off Broadway improv troop could have been coached to give it. Sorry... but I'm just not easily impressed by political speeches.

So if what the guy said ain't all that impressive (and it ain't), then what is everyone so impressed with? Him, of course. This young (42... though he looks much younger), African-American child of immigrants with a Swahili name and Ivy League credentials who's a ringer for the Senate. He's canny enough to comment on the improbability of his own success but still invokes the founding promise of America as what made it possible. I have nothing against Mr. Obama. I have no doubt he's an exceptionally bright person with a sincere desire to do good in the world, but don't try to tell me he's some kind of Everyman. He's the top .00001% of the population, raised to prominence and success by a titanic convergence of pluck and luck. And when he stands up before the crowds and camera and eloquently tells everyone what they want to hear, he's just doing his job.

We seem to like to say we don't like "politicians"... but we do. We really, really do.

-- mm

* - Thanks to Robert A. Harris' site virtualsalt.com for refreshing my memory on Greek rhetorical terms.


SUBJECT:
Google Not Here
DATE:
July-27-2004

Google was unavailable--503 server error--for about three hours yesterday and buggy and slow the rest of the day. They claimed it was a problem from a variant of the MyDoom virus, and that only certain regions were affected. I have to say, it was very weird with Google being down. I've come to rely on it for so many things, personal and professional--everything from fact- and spell-checking to HTML reference lookup to free stock photo image library (shh... don't tell anyone!).

It reminded me a little bit of the Great Northeast Blackout of Aught-three. That same feeling of bewilderment, a caveman-esque "why-this-not-work" sort of emotion. Like watching the sun go down on a dark Manhattan, so it was getting a Not Found from Google. It shook my faith a bit in the tenuous thread of the technological castle of cards in the sky that is our clay-footed golem of a society.

But later on it was back and was able to find the picture of Jenna Jameson I needed.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
And Here's The Jab
DATE:
July-26-2004

Ah, knew it was too good to not get lawyers involved.

So the media company that owns the rights to Woody Guthrie's original song is complaining that the "This Land" Bush-Kerry cartoon infringes on their rights by demeaning the song, turning it into a joke instead of revered anthem that (apparently) still makes them money. The Brothers Spiridellis who created it claim it is parody and they made fair use of the song. Legally, they are correct--the right of parody has been upheld time and again, even in the face litigious assaults by such 800-gorillas as Disney, Fox, and RJ Reynolds (or Altria or whatever the hell they call themselves now).

The interesting thing about the case--besides how predictable it is that a media company and its lawyers rush to grub at any whiff of publicity or money--is that it is the sheer magnitude of the popularity of the cartoon that takes the thing to another level. Think about it: will you ever hear that song again without humming "You're a Liberal Wiener, You're a Right-Wing Nut-Job" ? A little parody is one thing; a landslide that buries the original is another.

Not that I'm sympathetic to a media company making money off a populist anthem of national unity by a guy who's been dead for decades--but I can, in a way, feel their pain. My wife often complains that the dirty lyrics I make up sometimes for the children's songs we're forced to listen to day in and day out has "ruined" them for her. I'm not sure how my obscene shadow puppet act to "I'm a Little Teapot" or my imitation of The Wiggles singing "YMCA" would ruin anything... but I'm glad no lawyers have ever seen them.

-- mm

Allen Wastler's commentary on CNN.com

SUBJECT:
For Every Jib, There Is a Jab
DATE:
July-25-2004

Quick update on jibjab.com, the website of the two brothers who made supernova Flash-in-the-pan "This Land" Bush-Kerry cartoon.

  1. It's now on the home page of their site
  2. there are now third-party advertising banners on their site
  3. they're selling t-shirts and caps with the cutout images
  4. they humbly thank everyone who helped made the cartoon so popular
  5. they are going to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Monday, July 26.

In their blog, they make a reference to this being their Warholian 15-minutes of fame (I've never particularly thought much of Warhol, but that pre-Internet comment of his seems downright prophetic nowdays). Well, there's fleeting fame of many varieties, and these two guys seem to know exactly how to make the best use of theirs. More power to them, I say.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Wolf Gang Up On King
DATE:
July-24-2004

Just caught the end of a movie (I never seem to catch the beginnings, do I?) that I've seen bits and pieces of over the years. It's called Wolfen and is about highly intelligent wolves hiding in the South Bronx, leftover from pre-Colonial days, that are systematically defending their hunting grounds (a decaying slum) from developers. A respectable thriller--good cast, inventive visuals, imaginative story--that strikes me as an interesting cinematic artifact straddling the line between 70's "creeping menace"-style thrillers and 80's "roller coaster" thrillers (note to movie historians: I made up those categories, but they kind of make sense, don't you think?).

I have a mental association with the movie that has nothing to with its content. It was one of the first films released by a production company owned by comedian Alan King. I remember this because I heard him mention that on The Tonight Show when it came out (1981... Carson era!); I remember that because, a few years later, I worked at a company that shared a floor with Mr. King's New York office. I used to see him in the hall or elevator pretty often. Some people in my company sometimes approached him, respectfully, as a fan, and he seemed to accept that graciously enough. However (I'm not sure why I did this) I took a perverse delight in pretending I didn't recognize him. In the elevator, I'd make stupid chit-chat about the weather or tell him I found a great pizza place nearby and he should check it out--as if I thought him a peer in the universe of common office drones. He always replied to such things brusquely, which just made me ramp up my cheerful banalities.

While this was all pretty innocuous, never lasting more than a 10-floor ride, I've often wondered why I felt compelled to annoy the man at all. I have a vague prejudice that all celebrities deserve to be taken down a peg that stems, most probably, from a kind of envy. On the other hand, I've always loathed the hysterical fawning that spotting a famous face sometimes engenders in even intelligent people. I guess my behavior was a sort of middle-ground rebellion against the poles of "so you think you're a celebrity?" and "oh my God, you're a celebrity!" For all the years I've spent living/working in NYC--not to mention a handful of trips to LA--I've spotted very, very few famous people, and never anyone I really wanted to meet. I wonder what I'd do if I ever met one of my idols. Squeal and fawn? Nod and pass by coolly? Or say "Hot enough for you?" and chuckle like a yutz. Well, I've tried that last approach... doesn't seem like a fast track to an autograph.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
No Time For Nothing
DATE:
July-23-2004

I tell you, I have no time to do anything. Between work, family, home maintenance, health maintenance (no small matter at my age/condition), my endless little "projects", and sleep, I've got nothing. I guess everybody is pretty much in the same boat in their own way, but I just feel so stretched out all the time. I've always been a person who needs idle time. In a crisis, I can do things very efficiently, but my natural inclination is to proceed slowly and ponder different options at length--a classic "Libra" trait, my wife says. (Question: why are all women into astrology? Some more than others, admittedly, but they all are to some degree. Even more interestingly, no straight man I've ever met gives a damn about it. Seriously. Ask a guy what sign his friends are. No clue. Every woman knows, though.)

This habitually ponderous modality of mine has maddened almost everyone I know--including myself at times--yet, I have to say, I think it's served me well. I like to think about things. Roll them around in my head. Let random ideas bump into each other until something interesting happens in the collisions. But this takes time, of which I have less and less. Even worse, I'm starting to feel that I should use what time I have "more productively" and give up my lust for daydreaming.

Well, forget it. Life's too short to not piss it away, if one's so inclined. I'll do what I have to when I have to, but otherwise, I'm twiddlin' my thumbs and staring at clouds and pondering life's little mysteries. Like this women-and-astrology thing. It's like guys and the Three Stooges.

Hmm. Well, got that one figured out. Next?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Need a Bigger Garage
DATE:
July-22-2004

I've been playing around more with Apple's digital-music-making Garage Band software--and I've run smack dab into its limitations almost immediately. It is, after all, a version 1 application bundled in with other stuff for $50, and once you get over the "this is cool!" period and settle down to actually do something, it starts to act like, well, a $50 program bundled in with a bunch of other stuff.

Case in point: I'm using it to record some live keyboard playing. I'm not much of a musician, but I'm going for something specific here. With quick-tempo songs (145 beats per minute in this example), the digital audio recorder literally can't keep pace. The live recording is always a fraction of a second behind the software's digital drumbeat, so it always sounds just slightly out of time. As I say, I'm not much of a musican, so I figured it was just my lousy playing. I worked on it for hours and it wasn't until my wife (dragged up at 2:00 in the morning to hear) yawned and said it sounded like the recording was slow that it dawned on me.

Sure enough... a known problem. Documented on Apple's paltry Help files and amply grumbled about on numerous Garage Band forums. Some possible fixes were recommended, so stay tuned. You may yet get to hear me mauling my Casio live online.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
This Web is My Web
DATE:
July-21-2004

By now, everyone has seen or at least heard of the "This Land" Bush-Kerry internet cartoon. It's far from the first of it's kind, but it is quite funny and very well done by brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis who run a small web animation business and have suddenly been slammed with millions of hits to their website (jibjab.com), face time on every major news network, and a blaze of, literally, worldwide fame. All from some cheeky little song-parody, paper-cutout cartoon two smart-alecky 30-ish guys in California did in their spare time.

If there's anybody who still doubts the power of the web, this oughta shut 'em up. The revolution is happening a lot slower than I imagined it would, but it's definitely happening. Recently, speaking to some undergrads at a college, I described how I actually felt professionally privledged to be in the front lines of the desktop publishing revolution, and even a close bystander to the web publishing explosion. Sadly, I'm too old and set in my "state-of-the-art-1998" ways to learn the tricks of the new vanguard. These guys 10 years younger than me are generations ahead. But I'm enjoying watching, and I'll ride along in the aftertow as long as possible.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
It's Not the Tool, It's the Talent
DATE:
July-20-2004

Often when I talk to professional techie types, I find they love to go on about the latest hardware or software upgrades or the latest gadget they've bought or are contemplating buying. That's fine--I don't begrudge them that as their job and/or hobby--but I'm getting pretty sick of the gasps of disbelief they always give when I tell them what technology I'm using. News flash fellas: a six-year-old computer with four-year old software works just fine for most business applications. Even for moderate graphical work, you can do just fine with stuff that's "obsolete." I know. I do it every day.

Upgrades, hard and soft, are an invention of technology companies to keep consumers (i.e., mainly businesses) spending money on a regular basis. I can certainly understand why that's of value to them, but what amazes me is how they've gotten IT workers to become advocates of the scheme. I guess it helps keep everyone employed, but it sure doesn't do the average user much good. The PC is a technology largely perfected around 1996. That's not to say there haven't been impressive advances since then, but its core functions are well-established (text e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing) and the vast majority of common users stick to them. Upgrading to the latest model just to perform those mundane functions is a little like buying a Ferrari for grocery shopping.

Of course, it is fun to get your hands on Ferrari and see what it can do. Max out the speed, push the limits of the handling, or just cruise down the block and enjoy the oohs-and-ahs. But don't tell me my little old Honda is no good. It chugs along just fine for me. It's like an old pal that I can parallel park with my eyes closed while you can't fit your middle-aged, techno-crisis mobile into your second-mortgaged garage. Don't know what you're compensating for, but me and Windows 98 are very happy together, thank you very much, so you just let us be.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Thrill of An Evening
DATE:
July-19-2004

I saw a reality show tonight that I actually liked. Heresy, I know--but, in its and my defense it was   a) on Bravo   and   b) Canadian. Not that Bravo and Canada have infallible programming (they once aired a two-hour documentary about Rush... say no more), but they are less likely to stick exclusively to the cookie-cutter cud barfed down our baby-bird throats by American network TV (there's an image for you).

It was called Thrill of a Lifetime and simply featured ordinary people being given a chance to live out a fairly modest dream for a day. One was a young doctor who got to go on the set and meet the cast of Scrubs; the other was a fairly witty woman with the last name "Wiener" who appeared as a DJ on a morning radio show. What made the show charming--aside from the fact that the two featured thrillee's were attractive young women with appropriately stable personalities--was that it was quite obviously real. You saw them being nervous and excited and enjoying themselves. It was easy to feel pleased for them and imagine how much fun they were having. There was no melodrama, no falsified conflict, nobody was made into a villain or hero. Just regular folks getting a chance to do something out of the ordinary and having, more or less, the time of their life doing it.

I'm interested in people and seeing the assorted ways they react in different situations--which is why I hate most reality shows. They're fake, they're coached, they're orchestrated and, ultimately, a lie far worse than the cheesiest drama (to paraphrase Mark Twain: of course truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense). And they always focus on the kind of trumped-up interpersonal bickering that I studiously avoid in my everyday life. They want you side against the people you're seeing--to dislike and feel superior to them. That's a cheap emotional drug that is dangerously addictive to people with weak egos. I'd rather root for someone to succeed in a small, honest victory than a vast, fabricated battle. My 14-month-old daughter balanced a ball on a tee today. There was more drama and joy in that moment than a whole season of Survivor.

Ah... if only I could figure out how to pitch that to Fox.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Real or Memorex? The Difference Being... ?
DATE:
July-18-2004

Just caught the end of a movie, Simone, that came out a year or two ago. I've been wanting to see it because it was written and directed by someone who's work I've found interesting recently: Andrew Niccol. He wrote the screenplay for the Jim Carrey vehicle The Truman Show, and wrote and directed 1997's Gattaca, a generally excellent drama and by far the most vivid imagining of the impact of genetic engineering to date.

The movie stars Al Pacino (though I managed to get beyond that stumbling block... hoo-HAH!) as a movie director who takes a computer simulated actress, Simone (SIM ONE ...get it?) and makes her an international sensation. I recall the reviews for it were lukewarm at best, though I found it a pretty good satire of the cult of celebrity. I laughed out loud at several gags and even found myself sympathizing with the Pacino character, overshadowed by his own creation. It got me to wondering how far we are from such a thing: a completely fabricated celebrity that people worship without knowing it's an illusion. Technologically, I don't think it's quite possible yet (though after seeing Gollumn, I'm not so sure), but it surely will be soon enough. Sociologically, though, we're already there.

The capacity of global media to fashion an image of a pop star, actor, politician, or industrialist is pretty impressive. While there is nothing new in the concept of the powerful manipulating public perceptions, the media tools at their disposal today could scarcely have been imagined a few decades ago. I often dream that if I won the lottery, I'd love to take a crack at creating a celebrity (actress, boy band, political candidate... it doesn't really matter) just to see what I could pull off. As a writer, it's just character fiction on a grander scale... but what a scale! I want to have people in rural China phonetically quoting my celebrities' catchphrases, see African villagers wearing their t-shirts, or delight in the weepy thousands at a candlelight vigil after I fake their death.

Pray I never win the lottery.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Life Imitates Reality
DATE:
July-17-2004

In an interview published in the August Esquire, Donald Trump rails at George Bush for his handling of the Iraq war, claiming he would have never done things that way. That extremely disturbing hint at The Donald's possible designs on a political career aside, several of the items quoted in the interview strike me as dead on. Trump calls the invasion a mess and cites the casualties on both sides (approaching 15,000--if you include Iraqi civilians--is what I count from assorted sources) as pointless because the whole premise for the invasion--that Saddam had WMDs--was incorrect.

More interesting to me is an observation that everyone outside of the Bush Administration's reality distortion field (much more powerful than Steve Job's could ever be!) has made at one time or another. Trump goes on to say that the whole idea of bringing democracy to Iraq is ludicrous. A nation ruled by a repressive secular dictator in the heart of a region deep in decades of politico-religious revolution (Iran is right next door to Iraq, after all) could never have a smooth transition to a U.S.-style--let alone U.S.-friendly--democracy. Aside from anything else, it's that innate folly of the Iraq war that infuriates me.

I'm no dove. I know that the use of military force is inevitable in the modern world--but to use it stupidly and unnecessarily and without any real probability of a successful outcome is unforgiveable. Trump, with his trademark megalomania, made it clear he'd say "You're Fired!" to Bush. Interestingly, thanks to U.S.-style democracy, we'll all collectively have the chance to say that fairly soon. I'm very curious to see if we will.

-- mm

Snippets of Trump's comments on reuters.com


SUBJECT:
They Might Be Geeks But I Like It
DATE:
July-16-2004

Quirky, cult-fave rock band They Might Be Giants (best known currently for providing the music for the TV show Malcolm in the Middle) is gearing up to release a new album and, in a brilliant bit of cross-pollinating promotion, has released a great song, "Experimental Film," with a video on the cult-fave, Flash-cartoon website Homestarrunner.com.

If you know nothing of either entity, all I can tell you about TMBG and HSR is that they are ideal bedfellows. Two underground pop-culture phenomena that have quietly built up enormous followings among those with more brains than social skills (and you know who you are). One does with music what the other does with cartoons: create short, addictive little ditties that constantly blur the line between intellectual and juvenile humor, with implementations that manage to simultaneously radiate amateurish charm and big media slickness. Obviously, I'm a fan of both and to see them join forces is a real treat for me in my sad, sad little world.

Do yourself a favor, spend three-minutes with this Homestarrunner video for They Might Be Giants. It's proof positive that things too geeky-cool for the mainstream will find each other as surely as a warehouse of monkeys will type a soliloquy.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Bush It Real Good
DATE:
July-15-2004

Diet drink maker Slim-Fast announced that it will no longer run ads featuring Whoopi Goldberg due to comments she made at a Democratic fund-raiser held last week in Radio City Music Hall in NYC. The event featured celebrities taking assorted potshots at Republicans, and apparently Whoopi's routine focused on puns relating President Bush's name to female private anatomy. Slim-Fast is choosing to distance itself from that.

Now, Whoopi... you really should know better. You can't muff around with a bunch of hairy old jokes and think people will lap it up. No one expects you to stick to warm-fuzzy remarks at an event probing the rift between left and right, but you should at least pay lip service to the what's in the middle if you want to please the general pubic. You probably think you're slick for rubbing everyone's nose in it, but your quips were nothing more than crude, vulvar cracks that proved the short, curly straw that broke the back of the camel--toe the line or you're going down! There's a vertical split separating humor and taste, and you can't liberate anyone from the fold if you don't have your finger on the button of the American zeitgeist. Trim the blue stuff from your monologues if you want to help lick Bush in 2004.

(ASIDE: "Slim-Fast" never struck me as a very good diet product name. After all, if you fast, obviously, you'll get slim. Slim-Eat makes more sense, but doesn't have much of a ring to it. Though some products in this category have had much worse luck. Anybody remember AYDS? Of course not.)

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Obscurity v. Piracy
DATE:
July-14-2004

The mention of the word "obscurity" in conjunction with anything online always brings to my mind a quotation most commonly attributed to Tim O'Reilly, founder of a very successful computer book publishing house.

Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

I could comment on that at length, but instead I'll just let it stand. Why don't you let me know what you think about it.

-- mm

Tim O'Reilly's article Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution on the OpenP2P site.


SUBJECT:
Seeking Increased Obscurity
DATE:
July-13-2004

I came across a great phrase today. It was in a sales circular for Home Depot, in a section featuring customized etched/frosted glass front door windows. It showed photos of several different types of windows with different patterns and designs; next to each was a number tagged with an asterisk. The asterisk referred to a footnote saying:

* Obscurity Rating

Apparently the "obscurity rating" refers to how well you can see through the particular window. Higher obscurity ratings mean better privacy; lower obscurity means people can see in more easily. This makes perfect sense in context, but the phrase "obscurity rating" just begs for other interpretations.

As a web author, I think of it as the evil twin of Google's mysterious "Page Ranking." If a relevant keyword search doesn't turn up your site in the first 20 hits, you're well on your way to very respectable obscurity rating. The better your obscurity rating, the less likely you are to acquire cyber-stalkers or rack up an inbox of "U R DUMB F---ING A--HOLE" e-mails that are a sure sign you've made it in the blogosphere.

So protect your obscurity... it's like your web-based virginity!

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Dave Chappelle Routines
DATE:
July-12-2004

Upon hearing that comedian Dave Chappelle was converting to Islam, I began to wonder how that will affect his work. He's been one of my favortie comics for years but his routines, while often quite smart and satiric, are far from squeaky clean. He has one about a woman at a club, dressed in a revealing skintight outfit, who takes offense at being leered at, shouting, "I am not a whore!" He replies: "Of course not, ma'am... but you are dressed as one. Can you see the cause for confusion there."

Or his observation after seeing one of the Batman movies: "There were no black people in the movie. OK... so maybe there's no black people in Gotham City. I can accept that. But then they act like normal white people don't commit crime. Only mutant white people. Giant cats and penguins and stuff."

Whenever I catch Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central I see him doing imitations of rap and R&B stars I don't even know, yet I find the bits hilarious. Rapper Lil' John--apparently famous for a song that contains only the words "What?!"..."Yeah!" and "Oh-KAY!"--at an airline counter answering the "did-you-pack-your-bags-yourself" questions with just those three words. Or R. Kelly soulfully crooning "I Want to Pee on You." And I'll never forget Prince and the Revolution, in ruffly shirts and heels, challenging Eddie Murphy's brother to a pick-up basketball game. I particularly enjoy his "What if the Internet were a real place" skit where he wanders around a gleaming shopping mall, picking up free music downloads and being constantly distracted by nude photos of celebrities. Someone promoting all-natural penis enlargement pills keeps sneaking up to him in various disguises and pop-up salesmen for gambling and debt consolidation block his path at every turn.

I don't know... I just can't picture Muslim Dave's bits being as good. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe the HBO Chappelle's Hajj special will kick buttocks.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
5-Pillar Program
DATE:
July-11-2004

I just read that comedian Dave Chappelle, a very successful African-American comic, is converting to Islam. I've sort of followed Mr. Chappelle's career for some 10 years since I first saw him at Caroline's in NYC. He was so young (under 20 at the time) that I thought he was a busboy or something. I was stunned when he turned up on stage and was, by far, the best act of the night--and he's the only one of the headliners still working, as far as I know. His best bits were smart jabs at race, the assorted follies of blacks and whites alike, with the most subversive zingers reserved for the undercurrent of white social arrogance (a happy-go-lucky caucasian sings New York, New York lifting a finger in the air: "I'm top of the heap, A-Number-One! ... Taxi! -- Just checking!"). In the film Half-Baked he skewered pot stoner culture better than Cheech & Chong ever did, and his current Comedy Central series is both shockingly risque and brutally funny.

Now, he's converting to Islam. I wonder what the comedian Chappelle would make of that? Maybe he'd parallel the phenomenon of black celebrities converting to Islam with white celebrities going to rehab. Whites are friends of Bill W.; blacks are brothers of Louis F. The first step is to admit you're powerful and life among the infidels is unmanageable. Then make a fearless inventory of all the ways Western civilization has screwed you. Humbly ask a higher power to restore you to global dominance. Finally, make amends to anyone you called a punk-ass in your routines.

How do these black celebrities, usually at some kind of career crisis (e.g., Chappelle's got to be sick of people quoting his "I'm Rick James, bitch!" line), get hooked up with Islam anyway? There must be recruiters of some kind. You sign a commerical deal and, next thing you know, Allah's Witnesses are knocking on your door with some literature. And Islam, as strictly practiced, is a pretty austere faith. It must be a tough adjustment for a famous celebrity. Maybe you have a sponsor you can call up if you're having trouble praying fives times a day. Or say you're at a premiere party where a couple of strippers are going to make out in hot tub of champange. Perhaps you can suggest they use ginger ale. Submission to the message of the prophet is, after all, a harsh mistress.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Chicago 3:16
DATE:
July-10-2004

The announcement of Spamalot's Chicago debut reminded me of how much I like that city. The Art Institute. The Shedd Aquarium. Soldier Field. The Wrigley Building. Lincoln Park Zoo. The Magnificent Mile. Microbrews on Rush Street. Irish Pubs in the Loop. Sears Tower (world's tallest/boringest building). Hancock Building (always reminds me of what I imagine The Ministry of Truth should look like in 1984). An exquisitely cosmopolitan metropolis.

So cosmopolitan, in fact, you can forget it's in the heart of the Midwest. Once I was at the Field Museum of natural history, wandering through an exhibit about the evolution of life on earth. It was very grade school-oriented (happy-face, ping-pong ball organic molecules bobbing around in a bubbly primordial soup), though basically sound scientifically. At the end of the exhibit, there was a bulletin board with note cards, encouraging visitors to express their opinions. The vast majority of comments (in adult handwriting, by the way) were "God-created-the-heavens-and-the-earth" kind of stuff, with a few explicit references to the "falsity of evolution."

Anti-evolution stuff is a big bugbear of mine. I consider it a shame on the national intellect (if such a thing still exists in the Bush II era) that every major sub-college science textbook publisher has removed the word "evolution" from their books (go ahead... find me one that still has it... I dare you)--not because they believe it's right, but because it endangers adoptions. School boards are still cowed by simple minds who can't tell the difference between religion and science; people with "faith" so weak it can brook no deviation from the literal. I forget how common such folk are sometimes. They tend to speak up less in the Northeast.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Spamalot (i.e., Not My Mailing List)
DATE:
July-9-2004

A stage musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-written by original Python Eric Idle, is currently in the works. It's to be titled Spamalot and is scheduled to open for previews in Chicago in December 2004. Some cast announcements were just made:

David Hyde Pierce - Sir Robin
Tim Curry - King Arthur
Hank Azaria - Lancelot

Now I have to think of a reason to be in Chicago in December. I can actually come up with an excuse to be there in the first week, but the show's not supposed to open till December 21.

There must be some Christmas present somebody wants that's only available at Marshall Field's.

-- mm

Item on CNN.com entertainment


SUBJECT:
Oh... That's Edwards
DATE:
July-8-2004

OK, I got mixed up. John Kerry picked North Carolina senator John Edwards as his running mate, not--as I had assumed--TV psychic John Edward. My apologies... though I still think it would be cool to have the veep be the psychic-guy (I bet he could find bin Laden!).

Still, they're both just a pair of pretty-boy shysters who've risen to fame based on their exceptional ability to make vague statements that people can interpret however whatever they want. The whole "Two Americas" thing... heck, you can make that mean anything. Haves and Have Nots. Liberals and Conservatives. Red and Blue States. People who think that the puddin' head son of a president would make a good president himself and people who don't. The field is wide open.

As Confucious said: "There are two kinds of people in the world. People who think there are two kinds of people and people who think there are five elements."

-- mm

In case you didn't get the joke about John Edward


SUBJECT:
Kerry's Crossing Over
DATE:
July-7-2004

So John Kerry's announced he's asking John Edward to be his vice presidential running mate. I have to say I was a little surprised at this. I mean, I think John Edward is impressive--the way he gets those messages from dead people and all--but I would have thought his TV schedule wouldn't allow him much time for campaigning. And won't reporters always just be asking him how their Aunt Sophie is doing and where did Dad hide the safety deposit box key and what's Anne Rice like and stuff?

And, if he's elected, what's going to happen to his Sci-Fi channel show? Will he have to give it up, or can they rework the taping schedule to accommodate when the legislature is in session? Oooh! Wouldn't it be awesome to see him do a reading in the congressional hall! He'd be all like "I'm hearing a voice, a man, very authoritative. Did anyone here have an overbearing father?" and all the senators would be like, "Oh my God, that's me!"

Now that would boost C-SPAN's ratings big time I bet.

-- mm

P.S. - I know Anne Rice is not dead. She just thinks she is.


SUBJECT:
Spider-Man v. Jesus
DATE:
July-6-2004

My son woke up crying that a witch had been in his room and scared him. I calmed him down with the usual excuses (it was a dream, it was a shadow) and told him to hold on to his stuffed animals and that nothing would bother him again tonight. I was pondering giving him some religious image to help him (God is watching, etc.) but I find myself very uncomfortable with that. I do believe it's important to give children a sense that the cosmos is ordered and benevolent and traditional religion provides as good a tool for that as anything I can think of--but I'm very leary of introducing it as a kind of magic-on-call. Maybe I'm overcomplicating things, but I think one of the essentials of having a viable concept of God is an awareness that He just doesn't do what you want all the time.

I was spared this theological conundrum by something the boy came up with on his own. He said that if the witch came back, he would tell The Hulk to roar at her and that would scare her away. Every night he asks for a story about superheroes (there are very kid-friendly books featuring the Marvel characters). Wolverine and Captain America learn to take turns. Storm and Spider-Man cooperate to get a cat out of a tree. Stuff like that. Very organically, he turned these tales into a powerful fantasy to help him cope with his fear, no different in essence than an ancient peasant with their sprig of wolfsbane.

Superheroes are definitely today's gods--mythical Olympians who battle enemies beyond us and embody moral lessons. This isn't news to anybody who pays any attention to such things, but it was a revelation to me how naturally it fits into a three-year-old child's worldview. I'm happy to let him have these stories for now. When he's ready, I'll give him the bigger, more complicated ones.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Spider-Man, Too
DATE:
July-5-2004

Saw Spider-Man 2 last night. It was very well made and I enjoyed it a good bit, though I'd still argue that the X-Men movies are better overall comic book-to-film translations. However, I do agree with the prevailing view that it was better than the 2002 Spider-Man. That a sequel should surpass in quality its preceding film seems to go against conventional wisdom, but if you think about it, why should that be so? Why wouldn't actors and directors and film craftsmen hone and sharpen their vision of a character or plot in subsequent versions?

Movie sequels have gotten the reputation of being retreads created solely to capitalize on the financial success of a unique film, and that certainly happens often enough. But when an ongoing storyline unfolds across multiple cinematic releases--well, isn't that a perfectly natural way to do it? Especially for a comic/serial kind of thing.

Heck, I'll take a comfortable, old serial over a pretensious, avant-garde film any day. I'm just getting too old to care much about what young, passionate artists do. Just entertain me with something familiar, and go away for two years. Then do it again, etc. etc. Until I get sick of that and start bitchin' about whatever happened to the avant-garde.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Tired, Poor, Huddled, etc.
DATE:
July-4-2004

Went to Ellis Island yesterday afternoon. The main building opened about 10 years ago as museum focusing on immigration and the flow that passed through the island's processing station from @ 1890 to the 1920's when it closed. Aside from the staggering European influx in the early 1900's (supposedly some 60% of people living in the U.S. have family that entered the country through Ellis Island during that period), it was interesting to see exhibits on more recent immigration trends.

Asia and Central/South America are the principal sources of U.S. emigres since the 1980's, with numbers that rival the European heyday of seventy years prior. This seems to fit with most popular perceptions and one doesn't have to look far to find currents of prejudice that could belong to either era. (They're taking over! They're taking jobs! They don't like to work! They'll work cheaper than natives! They're importing their language and customs and refusing to adopt ours!)

America is really quite a young nation, and its history is very much a result of ongoing shifts in demographics. We seem to mistake its wealth and influence as a sign it has reached maturity and its sociological evolution has (or should) come to halt. A phalanx of well-off WASP politicians and businessmen like to encourage the myth that they are the fruit of America's great promise--tangible signs that the system works--but I tend to believe those at the bottom provide the true barometer of the country's health. Generations of immigrants have proven it's better to be poor in America than almost anywhere else. As long as we can still take in those hoping for a better life and actually deliver it (even if grudgingly), then I'll take that as a sign the system is working.

-- mm

I can never keep "immigrant" and "emigrant" straight. I know immigrant is someone coming into a country, and emigrant normally means one going out of--but aren't all immigrants also emigrants and vice versa? Very confusing.


SUBJECT:
Dinner Cruise
DATE:
July-3-2004

Took a dinner cruise around New York harbor tonight (my second this week on the same boat! ... but that's another story) for the wife's big Four-Oh. I recommend it highly as a pleasant way to pass an evening with a decent meal and leisurely tour around the spectacular perimeter of lower Manhattan. I'd forgotten how much I loved the old place, with glimpses of Chinatown and South Street Seaport and the Brooklyn promenade... all echoes of my misspent youth.

We passed under the Manhattan Bridge at twilight and watched the D train subway travel 70 feet overhead. I told (for the umpteenth time) the story of the how I nearly got a U-Haul stuck under a low clearance part of the Brooklyn Bridge. We also agreed that the 2000 American Godzilla movie, which had its final confrontation on the bridge, had some redeemingly entertaining parts peppered in its mostly ludicrous script. We idled in front of the Statue of Liberty and agreed it was a still a moving icon, notwithstanding the medley of cheesy patriotic songs the DJ blasted. We passed a boat chartered by Greek soccer fans celebrating that country's dark horse Euro 2004 victory. All told, a night to remember.

Of course, we did all this on July 3. I made a mental note to book a cruise next year for July 4 and get what would be, without question, the best view of the NYC fireworks possible.

-- mm

World Yacht, a NY dinner cruise line.


SUBJECT:
Big Time to Brush
DATE:
July-2-2004

Spent the week in Jersey City. Yes, Jersey City. You say "Jersey City" and people tend to cock their heads with a sense of disbelief and distaste as if you just said you enjoy sandwiches made of sardine eyeballs. You always have to reinforce it by defiantly blurting, "Yes! Jersey City!"--with the same sort of emotion I imagine that lay behind the origin of the "Yes, Hyundai!" slogan... but I digress.

Jersey City is actually a rather pleasant little hamlet on the Hudson facing the splendor of Manhattan on one side, with views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and wonderfully convenient transit by water, rail, or road. Its once-industrial waterfront is beautifully redeveloped with corporate towers and public piers, and the town is a classic brownstone residential area rich with ethnic and cultural diversity. You could do a lot worse than spend a few days in Jersey City, dammit.

Anyway, with all this, the most famous landmark in Jersey City is a big, old clock advertising toothpaste. The Colgate Clock is a remnant of another era, saved from the roof of a demolished building, preserved in the middle of vacant lot, kept accurately running and lit nightly so it can be seen for miles. At 50 feet in diameter, it's the largest working clock in the world. At first, it seems an odd icon, but it has a charm that grows on you. With the tide of waterfront redevelopment, it's fate is uncertain--but I hope it makes it. After all, what would they replace it with, except updated advertising?

-- mm

A brief history of the Colgate Clock on the New Jersey City University site--and, an entry from the "Community of Clocks" project sponsored by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, written by Jersey City P.S. 27 Student, Mary Komorowski.


SUBJECT:
Equal Opportunity To Disregard
DATE:
July-1-2004

I've noticed an increasing trend for consumer goods to include printed instructions in multiple languages. For example, I just bought a semi-inflatable kiddie pool for the backyard. It has an instruction sheet with at least a dozen languages; even more amusing, it has a big "WARNING" printed on the side advising parents around the world to not let children play in the pool unsupervised.

In this era of globalization, I can see the value of these polyglotic manuals to help sell products in wider markets more efficiently--after all, reprinting and repackaging versions for each local country is a lot more costly than doing it once for all. But the main enjoyment I get from this is trying to figure out the languages. The obvious candidates are always there: "ATTENTION!" (English) ... "ATTENTION!" (French) ... "ATENCION!" (Spanish) ... "ACHTUNG!" (German).

Beyond that, it gets interesting. There's a number of non-Roman scripts I think I recognize (Cyrillic, Arabic, Greek, Chinese [Mandarin or Cantonese?--or is it Japanese??], Korean [very angular, easy to spot]), but there's always a few that I can't place. Basically Roman letters, but with slashes in the O's or little circles above the vowels. Dutch maybe? Or Finnish? Portuguese? I try reading them out with an accent, but I just sound like the Swedish Chef.

Then, I find myself getting irritated at my ignorance and I just wish that all these damn manufacturers in China would just speak English only.

-- mm




 





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