Monthly Archives: May 2015

Mad Max (1979) after seeing Mad Max: Fury Road

I just saw Fury Road with my stepson. He wanted to know about the George Miller oeuvre, so I suggested we watch the movie that spawned it all, the 1979 Mad Max.

Very interesting to see the little hints that remain in the current movie, such as guys using high bendy poles to land on top of cars. Anthony Lane speculates that the notion comes from Buster Keaton. Cool!

The most hilarious part of the old Mad Max is the terrifying biker gang. What, apparently, is so terrifying about them is that they are slightly fey. Homoeroticism seems to be code for deviancy, which is code for danger. I mean, my god, some of them seem to be wearing eye shadow! Who knows what a man wearing eye shadow is capable of! But the way they caper and dance after getting off their bikes, or pose artistically while setting up for a victim, rather undercuts their supposed deadliness. My stepson said that they seem more like a traveling theater troupe than any biker gang he ever saw. They reminded me of the Anglo Saxon Messenger in Through the Looking Glass.

Hey, for $2.99 on Amazon, and at 90 minutes, it’s worth reviewing.

A Modest Proposal re Abortion

The 20 weeks about foetuses seems to be that they can survive… or maybe just that one has survived… outside the womb after only 20 weeks’ gestation. Somehow that has led to proposals to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks.

I don’t get it – if the baby can survive outside the womb after 20 weeks, then shouldn’t it be perfectly okay for a woman to end her pregnancy? Let her end her pregnancy, and let the medical establishment do their best to save the feotus for eventual adoption.

This rule – that the woman can end her pregnancy whenever she wants (up to a month post-partum, if you ask me; after that, they assume full parental responsibilities for the usual 18 years plus) and, if the newborn survives, it can be adopted, and if it doesn’t, there can be mourning; but in either case the foetus’s survival is not the mother’s responsibility – this rule solves everything. The mother has all of her privacy rights intact, the doctor can be portrayed as in the business of saving innocent babbies’ lives (instead of just saving the mothers’ lives, which doesn’t seem to garner many cheers on the ‘pro-life’ side – after all, she’s an icky grown-up person).

In fact, let’s retire the term “abortionist” and call them “baby-savers”. When they fail, they can shrug disconsolately at god’s mysterious plan, and when they succeed, pro-lifers can cheer. No more will their lives be threatened by heavily-armed zealots. Now those same heavily-armed zealots would protect the Baby-Life Clinics™.

We’re not dealing with the question of Who Pays the Bills, of course. If it were up to me (and, again, it doesn’t seem to be), every pro-life organization would have to put their money where their mouth is and pay for all that wildly expensive premature neonatal care. They’re pro-life, aren’t they? The should cheer at the chance. Right? And then they should insure adoption of the few actually living babies who emerge from the new chain of Baby-Life Clinics™.

A Set of Informal Heuristics for Winning “Bluff the Listener” on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me

Abstract

After listening to the NPR news quiz show, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, one begins to notice certain patterns in the featured game, Bluff the Listener. I have collected a list of informal heuristics to aid listeners at guessing the answer. I consider these “informal” because I have not gathered supporting metrics, merely guessed at patterns.

The Rules of the Game

A guest introduces themself by announcing their name and location. After a brief period of witty banter, led by the host, Peter Sagal, and abetted by impromptu comments from the panelists, the theme of that week’s game is introduced. For instance, on the show of Sunday, May 17, the theme was “Things people have done to get back at Russia”. Each panelist then reads a purported news story on that topic, one of which is pulled from the week’s news. The other two are fictional and written (presumably) by the panelists themselves. It is never explicitly stated that the panelists (rather than, say, Mr. Sagal or a staffer) wrote the fictional stories, but they seem to reflect the panelists’ interests.

After each story is read, Mr. Sagal briefly recaps all previous stories. After all three are recapped, the guest guesses which is the true story. Mr. Sagal then asks them to confirm their guess. Sometimes he will imply by tone that they would be wise to change their guess. Once their guess is confirmed, an audio clip is played revealing which is the true story. If the listener’s guess is correct, they win WWDTM’s only prize, Karl Kassel’s voice on their device of choice. The panelist whose story is chosen, whether or not it is the correct one, is awarded a point.

Heuristics for Guessing

  1. Longer stories tend to be fictional. The made-up stories tend to be longer and more convoluted than the true stories. The panelists put a high premium on being amusing, sometimes more than being plausible. Plausible is often rather dull. [Note to future researchers – data needs to be collected correlating length of stories with their veracity.]
  2. Non-American stories tend to be true. If two stories take place in the United States, and one elsewhere, the foreign story tends to be the true one. [Again, I have not collected data to confirm this. Feel free.]
  3. PJ O’Rourke is utterly transparent. The presence of Mr. O’Rourke on the panel gives the guest better odds of winning. When he writes a fictional story, it tends to be both utterly implausible and centered on his wheelhouse of “oh, those silly politicians.” If the story is about martini-swilling, rich Republicans, or overly-sensitive, improvident Democrats terrified of offending, then it is fictional. If his story is even slightly plausible, or concerns any other area of life, it is likely to be the true one. [While I have not actually collected data, come on – you know this is right.]
  4. Look for jokes. Almost all the panelists are comedians or humorists. They enjoy writing jokes. Jokes tend not to happen in real life. If the story features a clever joke, it is less likely to be true.
  5. More as I come up with them…

Conclusion

Lest this researcher be accused of sucking all the fun out of the show by exposing its workings so ruthlessly, I wish to say in my defense that one may enjoy a blue sky even if one knows that the color derives from the light-scattering properties of nitrogen, or a rainbow even if one is aware of the refractive characteristics of clouds of water droplets. WWDTM is a brilliant show, and Peter Sagal has the highest WEQ (Wit/Elocution Quotient) of anyone in broadcasting, or indeed in show-business. Bill Kurtis’s voice is like a comforting, protective blanket, if that blanket were also muscular (I know, a disquieting image). The panelists feel like old friends, even PJ; especially when he is hurt or sad (as he was when Amy Schumer was the celebrity guest), I feel like mixing him one of my White Manhattans and reminiscing fondly about William F. Buckley, Jr.

Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan

I first read an op-ed piece by Eric Kaplan in the New York Times, called What Role Do you Want to Play? I thought it was charming and funny. And he’s a writer on the Big Bang Theory, so that’s a hell of a credit. I went looking for his other writing, and found his blog, and his book, Does Santa Exist?

Simultaneously, I was discovering the Overdrive Android app, which enables you to borrow library ebooks and e-audio books. Since I have library cards for Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena/Glendale, there’s a trove of stuff out there to borrow without the chore of actually visiting a library (I love visiting libraries – I think they’re probably the single best thing in modern civilization, after, perhaps, the closed sewer). And I found Does Santa Exist? in audiobook form.

Here’s what I learned. Eric Kaplan is not just smarter than I am, he’s so much smarter than I am that I am actually moved to base feelings of envy. I’m reasonably smart, but I lack certain qualities such as energy and drive. One thing I’ve learned, working around people compared to whom I am slightly below average (JPL/Caltech) is that they are marked not just by processing power but by focus, drive, and energy. If you can work through fatigue, and stick to a goal without regard to immediate payoff, you are wayyyyy ahead of the game, even compared to a smarter person who needs a lot of sleep and can’t seem to get going.

Eric Kaplan is out there with the likes of Atul Gawande (surgeon and professor at Harvard, writer for the New Yorker, and, if you go by his articles, fine human being), Amanda Hesser (food writer for the New York Times and just ubiquitous and prolific), and a few others who I can’t even remember (my fault, not theirs).

There are wonderful writers out there who don’t make me feel small and inadequate; Tim Kreider and Heather Havrilesky, both of whom have been featured in the New York Times. They are funny, expressive, humane writers, but they’re not also surgeons, astrobiologists, TV writers, or bestselling authors.

Okay, back to Does Santa Exist? Very exciting book, though I recommend the written version over the audiobook. It takes some focus, and the whole idea of audiobooks is that you can do something else. If I’m going to sit quietly and listen to an audiobook and not do anything else, I might as well read a damn book. So there are certain portions, particularly about formal logic and the kabbala, of which I missed pieces.

There is one part toward the end, where he asks about why there is such a thing as a “point” to life, which I think makes too much of what amount to certain thoughts. He says (I’m paraphrasing here, so, sorry) that some people believe that matter has no point, that people assign points to things (this is what I believe). He argues that this fails because it implies that the universe is dualistic – made up of things without point and other things, people, with a point. I disagree: “points” are just thoughts, and thoughts are computational, and based on material brains. They are higher-order aspects, or products, of people and no more magical or esoteric than the color blue or happiness or envy. Which are all wonderful, and part of life, and so on, but not anything other than any other thoughts.

Anyway, Happy Mothers’ Day!