Black Dynamite
November 30, 2008, 3:14 pm
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Hilarious, and not safe for work.

Who You Gonna X-Ray
November 30, 2008, 2:06 pm
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Because so few common words start with the letter X, some children’s alphabet books use “x-ray” as their example X word, showing it alongside a cartoon white skeleton on black. Because of this, M. now basically thinks that the word for skeleton is “x-ray”. This is why the following question she just asked me makes sense:

“Do ghosts have x-rays?”

False Alarms
November 30, 2008, 4:18 am
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In every place I’ve ever lived that had smoke alarms, I’ve caused the alarm to go off by cooking something in the oven. Every place.

Till a few years ago I used to get phone calls from Discover freaking out about “potential suspicious activity on my card and we just want to verify” anytime I charged something more than a couple hundred bucks, till it got to the point that I yelled at the lady in annoyance. All cars I’ve ever had with that irritating “Check Engine” light have had their oh so informative “Check Engine” light come on at some point or another, forcing me to take it in to the shop to get it “Checked” (no, there’s never been anything seriously wrong). And of course like everyone else my car alarm has gone off for no reason.

The problem with false alarms is not only that they’re irritating. It’s that by being irritating they actively do more harm than good, lulling you into ignoring them.

In statistics jargon these tests all have a ton of sensitivity but not nearly enough specificity.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this so let me try to make it relevant to current events. People are fond of blaming the financial crisis on this or that; you hear that there should have been more “regulation” (whatever that means), or better “risk management”. Why didn’t the people who were supposed to watch out for these things watch out? Why did all the regulations and risk controls and warning flags fail?

I have reason to believe that there was no lack of controls and warnings and regulations at all. Seems to me the financial world is regulated and risk-measured up the wazoo and that any entity within it must navigate a labyrinthe of interlocking regulations and employ giant teams of folks to measure and flag everything in sight, while business heads are flooded daily with risk measurements, warning flags, reams of reports filled with numbers, and endless red tape.

And maybe that’s the problem.

At one point I just took out the batteries of the smoke alarm near the kitchen. Of course, I survived, but a less sensitive/more specific smoke alarm would have been far preferable.

Quarter Of The Way There
November 29, 2008, 4:27 pm
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Here’s a list of The Supposed Top 100 Movies according to a magazine called Movie Notebooks (Les Cahiers du Cinema, if you speak Frog).

By my count I’ve seen only 25 of them so I can’t argue with most of it. I can make these observations though:

  • The inclusion of five Charlie Chaplin films seems a bit overmuch. Nothing against Chaplin of course but are all five really among the top 100 or is this some sort of Jerry Lewis-esque French fascination with Chaplin?
  • Ever notice that ’70s movies almost have to have been about the Vietnam War (Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter) in order to be “great”? I’m not sure I’d put Deer Hunter on this list. I didn’t even like Apocalypse much, although I can acknowledge its “great” ness.
  • Citizen Kane and Les Regles du Jeux (“Rules of the Game”) are always, always high on these lists (top 5 at least). I know I’ve seen both of them but I remember almost nothing about either one. I know that Citizen Kane ended with “Rosebud” and I know that “Rules” almost put me to sleep when I watched it at a friend’s house. I’m thinking neither can have been that great (top 100 ok but not top 10). I guess both could have been “innovative” or something and that’s why they’re considered so great, but what good does “innovative” do for the modern viewer?
  • Rewatched Singin’ in the Rain recently. Seems underrated to me now, so I’m glad to see it here.
  • I liked Talk to Her a lot and all, but I can’t help but think they just put it on the list cuz they thought they needed to include an Almodovar movie.
  • Same goes for Mulholland Drive and David Lynch. Although in this case I do think that Mulholland Drive will come to be considered to have been a great enough movie that it merits consideration.
  • I hate to say it but I really did not like Once Upon A Time In America. Well done and all (mostly) and transcendent in parts, but somehow twisted, with its heart in the wrong place. If you need a Sergio Leone movie why not Once Upon A Time in the West, which would be in my top 10 in any case?
  • No Spielberg! Intentional slight? I’m not a total Spielberg-phile or anything but it’s hard to understand how you exclude Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, or even more genre pictures such as Jaws, E.T., the underrated A.I., or Close Encounters. And Empire of the Sun actually seems tragically overlooked/underrated by everyone. That’s a pretty monstrous list to be leaving all of them off (and including five Chaplins, or second-string Fellini like Amarcord). Do all these Spielberg monsters cancel each other out or something?
  • More obviously looks like they meant to exclude everything from the blockbuster era, so I guess that’s why Jaws is out (and Star Wars, obviously, which in my mind somehow achieves the trick of being a great movie without actually being a very good movie). But how do you leave out Raiders of the Lost Ark? And George Lucas’s name does deserve to be up there for one movie: American Graffiti.
  • No Scorsese. Again, not the hugest Scorsese fan, but Goodfellas is there at least. Come on.
  • No Coen Brothers either. Which is ok with me (the Coen Brothers have become overrated nowadays, and their best movie remains The Big Lebowski), just interesting to note.
  • Harder to put my finger on but it seems like they left out a whole era/genre of romantic comedy pictures. Where’s Audrey Hepburn? Roman Holiday – at the very least.
  • And of course both recent movies and “children’s” movies get short shrift. In the past 10 years I don’t think I’ve seen very many movies that are better than Babe or even The Incredibles. Why do we ignore such movies when compiling “great” ones? Babe can’t be a great movie because it’s too kiddie?
  • Some directors seem to be getting second-string material onto the list that really shouldn’t be there, just because the directors are big names. I can’t argue with Fellini’s 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita since I haven’t seen them, but if they both need to be there, then Amarcord kinda doesn’t. By the same token if you’re going to double up on directors, what about Billy Wilder (The Apartment, in addition to Some Like It Hot) or John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in addition to The Searchers)?
  • Just a few names to toss out: The Bridge On The River Kwai, Casablanca, The Great Escape, On The Waterfront. And of course Pulp Fiction. I originally loved Pulp Fiction, then got tired of the hype, but now I think the wheel may have turned back to the point where we may be taking it for granted. It was a great movie by any reasonable definition.

All-In: Bailout Supporters and Iraq War Supporters

The beginning of this post by Megan McArdle fits an increasing pattern I’ve been noticing. While the bulk of the post is actually quite interesting and informative, about what went right and wrong in the government’s approaches to the Depression, the beginning of the post is a defensive, mealy-mouthed equivocation designed to admit that the bailout has gone haywire without admitting she was wrong to support the bailout.

More and more it’s beginning to seem like the ’08 financial bailout is the financial equivalent of the ’03 Iraq invasion. Financial-world junkies and hangers-on play the role of “neocons” in supporting the controversial measure for (some would say) misguided ideological reasons; we got Henry Paulson instead of Colin Powell as the pitchman; we got the spectre of this or that market “freezing up” instead of the spectre of “a nuke detonated in a major American city”; in each case the action was pitched with (what detractors say were) dishonest arguments; and in both cases when results appeared to go off the rails, the supporters had to struggle with acknowledging reality and confronting their own thought process in their own initial support.

As someone who supported the Iraq invasion and has never felt the need to backtrack, reading Megan McArdle and others gives me an idea of what people who vehemently disagree must feel like. “Argh! Just admit you were wrong!!”

Of course I believe there’s an important difference between the two (but then I would, wouldn’t I?). Namely, the Iraq invasion had one fundamental purpose and it has achieved that purpose: to dethrone Saddam Hussein from rule in Iraq. Obviously other potential positive outcomes were sometimes bandied about by supporters of the invasion, not all of which have come to pass (but not all of which haven’t!), but the invasion itself had a clear goal and achieved it. The fact that Iraq didn’t become a stable democracy (etc.) may be disappointing but it’s not a result that compels me to decide I was wrong to support the 2003 invasion, because I did not support it specifically because of that kind of result.

While the goals of the bailout may have been a bit fuzzier, it’s a lot more clear that we’re very far away from achieving any of them. At this point as far as anyone can tell the money is just being thrown at friends of Hank Paulson – given to companies he likes (Goldman, Citi), not given to companies he doesn’t like (Lehman). What financial or social goal this is achieving, no one can say.

What there is not in the bailout case is anything resembling the achievement of “dethroning Saddam Hussein”. I know by this point nobody considers the dethroning of Saddam Hussein a big deal but it actually was. What is there to point at that the bailout has achieved? You got me. Why it should be difficult, then, for people like Megan McArdle to admit that it’s just a boondoggle at best and a disaster at worst, is beyond me.

But it does lead to a fascinating parallel. In both cases we’ve got committed supporters who are all-in this hand they’ve played. Unfortunately, while even supporting the Iraq invasion may have been a losing hand (let’s say, a pair of eights), it seems to me that bailout supporters are sitting there with, like, a 10-high. Their bluff should be called.

The Twelve-Word Biography Of Henry Schmidt
November 22, 2008, 6:01 pm
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Because Mike Mussina took the rare step of retiring after a 20-win season, the tantalizing case of Henry Schmidt of Texas, a one-year 20-game-winning major league pitcher (for the Brooklyn Superbas in 1903), seems to have been making the rounds. Wiki:

The Superbas wanted him back for 1904, but he declined, sending a note to the team (with the unsigned contract for the 1904 season) that declared, “I do not like living in the East and will not report.

A man after my own heart.

I’d totally read a full biography of this guy, whoever he was. Heck, they should turn his life story into a movie. I can’t find any real details about the guy (if you see any do let me know!) but there just seems like there’s gotta be so much behind those twelve fascinating words.

The Little Orphan Myth
November 22, 2008, 2:06 pm
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M. recently has been watching the ’80s movie version Annie. Some trenchant observations already:

“Annie sings a lot.”

“There’s too much kids!” [in the orphanage]

For some reason I now find ‘Annie’ to be a fascinating artifact of the Depression. Notice how the rich guy who adopts her is called ‘Warbucks’ – he was a war profiteer in WWI, presumably. The creator of Annie seems to have thought this just swell. Wiki also has some fascinating stuff on the original comic:

It was also about this time that Gray, whose politics seem to be either conservative or libertarian, introduced some of his more controversial storylines. He would look into the darker aspects of human nature, such as greed and treachery. The gap between rich and poor was an important theme.


The strip (and Gray, in interviews) glorified the American business ethic of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. His hatred of labor unions was dramatized in the 1935 story “Eonite”. Other targets were the New Deal and communism. Corrupt businessmen often appeared as villains.

Gray was especially critical of the justice system, which he saw as not doing enough to deal with criminals. Thus, some of his storylines featured people unashamedly taking the law into their own hands.


Warbucks became much more ruthless in later years. After catching yet another gang of Annie kidnappers he announced that he “wouldn’t think of troubling the police with you boys”. The implication was that while Warbucks and Annie celebrated their reunion, the Asp and his men took the gang away to be lynched.


These views caused outrage from many quarters. The New Republic was especially critical, publishing an article by Richard L. Neuberger which described Annie as “Hooverism in the Funnies”. A later editorial went further in describing it as “Fascism in the Funnies”.

Betcha didn’t know there was ever so much controversy swirling around ‘Little Orphan Annie’. So weird. I wonder what weird artifacts our current recession will produce; it doesn’t seem to have quite hit our media yet (which still seems obsessed with mythologizing about how wrong the Iraq war was).

Of course, the ’80s film adaptation of “Annie” is also a fascinating artifact, in its own way: in Hollywood’s warped Reagan-era PC retelling, Warbucks ends up taking Annie to meet FDR, and they all sing “Tomorrow” together. The New Deal is presented as the sunny, optimistic choice, and Warbucks is a grump for being opposed to it; through Annie he appears to switch sides and then FDR nominates him to run it! Gray must have turned over in his grave.

Here’s a prediction: ‘Annie’ will be “rebooted” sometime in the next decade or so as a dark, dystopian comic-book action movie (in the same style as, say, V For Vendetta). The basic premise – girl adopted by bald rich guy – will be retained. But it will be “dark”. The girl’s age will be advanced somewhat so she can be played by a hot teenager with breasts and long legs who kicks the bad guys like Buffy, and it will be a seedy revenge story (with undercurrents of, say, rape or child abuse). And then it will become an interesting artifact of the ’00s as well.

Or maybe that’s what V For Vendetta was already like; I never actually saw it.


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