A movie I distinctly remember enjoying quite a bit when I was in high school.  Stallone is actually pretty funny, playing to type as a gangster trying to straighten up his image. A few bullets:

  • There are several funny bits in the film, the best being the barely-able-to-speak-English Fenucci brothers, the tailors who show the newspaper photo of a murdered man as a sign that they’re “famous.”  We must always praise Harry Shearer.
  • I also heartily enjoy Tim Curry’s work in the film as the elocution expert, Dr. Poole.
  • It wasn’t quite as funny as I remember it being, but it holds up nicely.  If you’re looking for a good farce, though, you should see Noises Off first.
  • As the film ends, and Snaps has gone back to being a gangster after one day of trying to go straight, I was amused to ponder that he can settle back into extortion, bootlegging, and violence as means for making money.  Of course, the bankers come off as reprehensible reprobates while the gangsters are pretty likeable, so I shouldn’t be surprised that the ending is happy.  According to Wikipedia, farces often end with un-recouped villainy: “The protagonist may get away with what he or she has been trying to hide at all costs, even if it is a criminal act.”

Great moments in fortune cookies

“Promote literacy. Buy a box of fortune cookies today.”

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

The Final Solution by Michael Chabonby Michael Chabon

Enjoyable, well written, as expected. A quote:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings–the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted–had he not?–by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic crypographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems–the false leads and the cold cases–that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude; really, he thought, one might. (129-131)

And a question for anyone who has read the book and has a better grasp of the intricacies of German policies and the holocaust than I do. After the break for it presumes you’ve read the book…

Continue reading The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

Mr. Hidey-hidey-ho

This week, I’m listening to a number of small selections, along with albums.  Here are chaotic ramblings those listenings inspire.

  • Belle and Sebastian (1 song) – I’m always reminded, when I encounter this band, of two things: 1) college radio playlist option I never took and 2) Jack Black’s smackdown of B&S in High Fidelity (see below).
  • 4: Better Than Ezra – I recently mentioned my “bands have an angst” theory to someone at the PCA conference.  They immediately suggested BtE.  “Like how BtE always sings about people leaving?”
  • 1: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – “Mr. Pinstripe Suit” would be in my list of top-ten favorite songs ever.
  • 3: Bill Morrissey – Melancholy should hereafter be spelled Morrissey.  Alas, people would probably confuse that with the British singer who goes only by that surname.  I don’t have any of that Morrissey’s music, but I remember a column appearing in my undergraduate college’s newspaper in which the author pontificated on the ramifications of wearing a t-shirt to class emblazoned with the phrase Morrissey is a Twat.
  • 1: Bjork – I have one album’s worth of her music, but got it from a friend and the ID3 tags didn’t carry, so it’s just Bjork_01, Bjork_02, etc.  Also, Bjork rhymes with Spork, which was called a runcible spoon before it was called a spork.  Sporks have come up thrice in recent memory.  First, on the This American Life episode called “Tough Room,” one of the editors mentions pitching the headline, “Spork used as knife.”  Second, in a presentation at PCA about Jasper Fforde novels, the presenter discussed the funny names sprinkled throughout the Thursday Next novels, one of which was her supervisor, Runcible Spoon.  Third, Jenny encountered the phrase runcible spoon in some book just today, and I was able to explain what it meant because I’d heard the presentation just days before.
  • Black Isle, Blind Faith – 1 song each.  These went by when I was busily working and I didn’t even notice them.  Looking at the titles doesn’t help at all.
  • 2: Blink 182 – I always feel like a bit of a poseur listening to these guys.  I don’t know why, they’re just as “authentic” as any other mainstream band.  I think it’s the carefully messy hair I see in their videos.
  • 1: The Blues Brothers – “The other day, I had a ricochet biscuit. Oh yeah. Now that’s a biscuit, a particular kind of biscuit, that’s supposed to bounce back off the wall into your mouth.  People, if it don’t bounce back, you will go hungry.”
  • 1: Blues Traveler – I don’t care, “Hook” is a cool song.

The Inner Circle

Inner Circle

1946.  Adele Mara and Warren Douglas star in this mystery about a murdered radio gossip columnist.  The moment pictured here is awesome — the detective is duped by the damsel in the veil, and left to take the blame for the corpse on the floor.  She beans him with a bookend.  A fine film, and well worth the price.

Worth my thirty-eight cents:

At one point, Johnny Strange, of Action Incorporated, is tangling with some gangsters preparing to tie him up and chuck him off a cliff.  He warns them, “You’re making a boner, York!”  Juvenile tittering commences.

PCA roundup

The PCA/ACA 2008 National Meeting was excellent. I enjoyed myself very much, heard several great panels, got elected to the executive board, and got to see San Francisco. Here’s a roundup of papers I found particularly memorable:

  • 028 – Olivier Mauco gave an interesting talk on political activities in online spaces (such as WoW). I liked his connection of a variety of theories to the online political activity, but thought he was a bit quick to dismiss the in-game political activities performed by people playing games like Eve Online in favor of in-game conversations about real-world politics. The latter seem destined to failure, imo; no-one logs in to game spaces to talk politics, so it’s not surprising that such activities fail.
  • 028 – Tony Avruch explored the shifting shape of camera and visual topographies in Call of Duty games, particularly the level in CoD4 where players take the role of the gunner on a support airship and find themselves reenacting footage widely available on the internet. He suggests that there’s some sort of disconnect between the player that allows for us to see this immersion as enjoyment, despite its verisimilitude. I’m not sure I understand how that fails to suture, but it was an interesting talk, nonetheless.
  • 064 – Alcatraz Roundtable was pretty interesting. First, historian Glen Gendzel gave a short talk about the vast history of the island outside its time as a prison, then Gary Hoppenstand and Lynn Bartholomae got to the good stuff, talking about the prison. Heh.
  • 204 – Jason Farman, “Hypermediating the Game Interface: Grand Theft Auto and the Alienation Effect” was my favorite paper of the conference. Farman connected Brechtian theatre theory with the acts of game-playing Bernard Perron wrote about in “From Gamers to Players and Gameplayers.” Farman suggests that the ability to goof on the game, such as giving your avatar a funny costume, allows players to distantiate themselves in the way Brechtian theatre hoped to distantiate audience members. Farman acknowledged, in Q&A, that it’s a crucial shift to put the burden for this sort of ironic play onto the player–who could play the game entirely straightfaced–but the discussion of Brecht in this context seemed crucial to me.
  • 204 – Jason Tocci, “Getting 1UP on Death,” was another very interesting discussion of game elements and ideas. Tocci explored the workings and phenomenology of death in games, thinking about games where death becomes part of the narrative or avoiding it is essential (such as games where you are revived or fight your way back to life instead of dying and starting over). Tocci’s presentation style was pretty great too.
  • 266 – Cynthia Nichols and Lauren M. Reichart, “Parasocial Interaction and The Bachelor.” I’m not trained in the sociological, scientific model of textual analysis, with statistics and coding. That aside, Nichols and Reichart presented an interesting breakdown of a prominent Bachelor fan blog and its comment audience. In particular, I was interested to hear that the producers of the show got involved with the blogger, bringing her to L.A. and giving her special access. The idea of parasocial interaction seems a useful one, but I’m still not convinced about the utility of the deep data coding as opposed to a more general descriptive practice.
  • 266 – Steven John Thompson, “Romancing the Bone: Access, Intimacy, and the Grammatologies of Craigslist.org.” The grammatologies was what lured me to this panel, and it turned out to be a bit of a red herring, infiltrating the presentation much more indirectly than I expected. His analysis of the audiences and modes of presentation in the CL personal ads were excellent, though, and his presentation style was amusing; perfect for PCA. I also enjoyed a little reflected glory when, chatting with him afterward, I mentioned that I’d studied with Ulmer and he seemed a little star struck. I forget that, to others, Ulmer is a sage on a mountain rather than a sage sitting among stacks of books in his Turlington office. I’d guess I had the same look when John Walter mentioned that he was working with Ong. For his part, Thompson is studying with Vitanza, equally impressive in my book.
  • 266 – Montana Miller, “Private Life, Public Story: How Facebook’s ‘Feed’ Shattered the Frames.”  Miller’s talk was also excellent.  I would have liked to see her develop the “frames” idea a bit more, but perhaps the fifteen minute conference talk is the place to tell the anecdotes and evidence, and to leave the theory as a tantalizing Q&A possibility.
  • Mystery & Detective Area Business Meeting.  I got two recommendations to read: The Art of Detection by Laurie King and Dike Derrol the Railroad Detective available on Librivox.
  • 591 – The last panel I attended at the conference was on Saw.  The two papers were both interesting, discussing the characters and their connections to a variety of cultural influences.

My paper went over pretty well, I think, even if I didn’t have any good conclusions to offer.  I recorded the audio, so if it came out okay, maybe I’ll adapt it into a longer piece, if I can figure out somewhere to place it.

In the Restaurant!

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
by Bill Bryson

I seem to be on a Bryson binge lately, somehow finding myself reading two of his books at the same time.  We have three more on the shelf downstairs, but it will be a while before I read another.  This book was quite delightful: full of little details that you hope you will remember far into your future life.

Consider the words that Shakespeare alone gave us, barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant, and some 1,685 others. (76)

I thought this was a particularly funny turn of phrase:

…we don’t know where the dollar sign ($) comes from.  “The most plausible account,” according to Mario Pei, “is that it represents the first and last letters of the Spanish pesos, written one over the other.” It is an attractive theory but for the one obvious deficiency that the dollar sign doesn’t look anything like a p superimposed on an s.  (163)

Apparently the phrase/abbreviation/word O.K. is actually proto-l33t speak:

According to Allen Walker Read of Columbia University, who spent years tracking down the derivation of O.K., a fashion developed among the young wits of Boston and New York in 1838 of writing abbreviations based on intentional illiteracies.  They thought it highly comical to write O.W. for “oll wright,” O. K. for “oll korrect,” K. Y. for “know yuse,” and so on.  O.K. first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post.  Had that been it, the expression no doubt would have died an early death, but coincidentally in 1840 Martin Van Buren, known as Old Kinderhook from his hometown in upstate New York, was running for reelection as president, and an organization founded to help his campaign was given the name of the Democratic O.K. Club.  O.K. became a rallying cry throughout the campaign and with great haste established itself as a word throughout the country.  This may have been small comfort to Van Buren, who lost the election to William Henry Harrison, who had the no-less snappy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” (165-166)

On place names:

However, what America does possess in abundance is a legacy of colorful names.  A mere sampling: Chocolate Bayou, Dime Box, Ding Dong, and Lick Skillet, Texas; … Dead Bastard Peak, Crazy Woman Creek, and the unsurpassable Maggie’s Nipples, Wyoming. (208)

On swearing:

Some cultures don’t swear at all.  The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words.  The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa.  It means “in the restaurant.” (214)

On the other hand, words that seem entirely harmless now were once capable of exciting considerable passion.  In sixteenth-century England, zooterkins was a pretty lively word.  In nineteenth-century England puppy and cad were highly risque. (217)

My favorite of the wordgames he mentions:

  • Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? (palindrome, 229)
  • Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas (palindrome, 229)
  • The Morse Code = Here come dots (anagram and awesome potential t-shirt slogan, 230)

Overall, the book is quite enjoyable for those of us who enjoy words, in English.

Can I post-date that?

It’s spring break here, so we’re off to “The Dells” and to Minnesota, leaving the dogs in the care of our house sitter.  But don’t worry, DS fans, you won’t be without content that whole time.  I’ve prepared several entries and post-dated them to appear day-by-day as we’re gone.  I don’t have quite enough to fill the whole gap, but it’ll be pretty good.  I may even put up a post or two while we’re traveling (assuming we have internet).

I have to say, that’s one of my favorite things about WordPress (other blog software does it too): the ability to control when the post appears by changing the date / time assigned to it.  Thus, when I’m feeling particularly writerly, I can crank out a couple days’ worth of entries. I just have to be careful with time-specific phrasing like “We just watched” or “I just finished”.  Heh.


San Francisco Stories


I was in San Francisco for PCA 2008 last week. Some additional commentary on the panels will follow, but here’s a bit about my days in the city.

I took a long walk around the city on Good Friday, about six hours, and enjoyed it immensely. The most striking thing about the city is its architecture. The vast hillsides and outrageous property values result in a mix of eclectic styles with a compact layout. The row houses were particularly cool to look at, and I ended up taking lots of pictures of buildings.

I had lunch with a friendly light-bulb salesman named Dan, who offered some advice when he saw me perusing my copy of “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail.” I took some of his advice, but didn’t have time to go out to Golden Gate Park for a bike ride. Next time, Dan. We chatted about old films, kids these days, and ubiquitous computing. I suspect I was open to this conversation mostly because I was in conference mode, and inclined to chat with strangers. I don’t know that I would have lunch with a stranger in a Chicago eatery. More’s the shame for me.

Filbert Stairs 3
My favorite part of the walk was the Filbert steps, a wooden staircase that runs down Telegraph hill between two sets of houses. The stairs feel cozy and quaint, and you have to work not to look in peoples’ back windows. As I walked down the steps, I heard squawking and was happy to find a telephone line full of the wild parrots of Telegraph hill. I geeked out, taking several photos and even some video of the birds. Like the true nerd I am, I also pointed them out to other Filbert steps walkers, “Check out the parrots!” I say, grinning and full of delight.

Pier 39 frothed with humanity, and I strolled through the arcade, an ice cream cone in hand.   On the railing by the water overlooking Alcatraz, I found a BookCrossing book, which I picked up and plan to read soon.  Then I will release it back into the wild.  What fun!  I will have to pick a place where the book is likely to be picked up by a tourist, so it will travel further than Chicagoland.

The walk from the Hyde street railway station back to Chinatown was about 20 blocks, mostly uphill, but quite enjoyable.  I found this nifty little “mini park” between two houses and lots of neato houses and other bits of local color. In Chinatown, I had some tea at the Ten Ren Tea Company and marveled at the racks upon racks of t-shirts for $1.99 and $1.88, variously.    I arrived back at my hotel at 6:15pm exactly, right when I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner.

Overall, the city was lovely and fun to walk around.  I didn’t get to see Alcatraz up close because I stupidly didn’t book weeks in advance, nor did I have time to get out to Golden Gate park, but otherwise it was a very enjoyable walk.  If you want a more photographic description, you can check out my flickr photoset.

Quick blurts and a couple pics from SanFran

Here in San Fran for the PCA 2008 conference. Woot! Here are a couple bits and a couple photos.

Said in jest, but funny:

I don’t let facts get in the way of good theory.

The Billboard liberation front is at work on Bart.
The Billboard liberation front was at work on Bart.

A description of world politics:

The cold war was always a popularity contest between the superpowers.

I love the streetlights around here. In the background, you can just make out a sign for some store called fcuk
Powell street, cool light.  Check out the sign in the background

I met a dude who described his field of interest as “arcane tidbits of a variety of things.”

Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson; narrated by the author.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidEnjoyable, as BB’s books always are.  I was a bit worried about reading a memoir–not my favorite genre, usually–of someone whose only accomplishment that I knew of was to be a great travel writer.  True, he’s branched out into books other than travel writing (I’m also finishing Mother Tongue right now), but I was still skeptical.

These worries aside, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is actually a travel book, with 1950s Iowa as its subject.  Bryson does a great job developing a sense of what Iowa, and America to boot, were like in the 50s.  I particularly liked his description of the shift, in the late 1950s, from happy to melancholy in the national ethos (marked, Bryson suggests, by the Soviet successes in the space program, our failures, the rise of the two-income household, and so on).  Bryson also makes the interesting note that unlike most other modern countries, America used its surplus wealth to buy more stuff, and to work harder; lots of other countries traded at least some of that wealth for leisure (I think here of the French four-week vacation standard).

As usual, Bryson couches his commentary in excellent anecdotes, cleverly crafted with zingers here and there.  He builds them from the perspective of the child he was when he experienced them.  Thus, the facts he states with no irony or hint of smile work so well: there were at least 1000 kids at the railroad trestle, Ernie Banks is the nicest man to ever have lived, etc.

I was a bit put off by Bryson’s voice at the beginning–something about the trace of English accent in his voice, I don’t know–but I came to enjoy it a lot.  The effect of an author reading his own work is rarely surpassed.

B Music

For those of you who haven’t been following, I’ve recently started switched my “music while I work” playmode from Party Shuffle to steady progression. In other words, I’m listening to all my music, in alphabetical order by artist.

  • 1: The Band Dick Tidrow- My first ska album, from before I knew what ska was. A buddy’s cousin was in the band, which recorded a record just before they broke up. He liked to bring the CD to parties, where it would sit unnoticed until I put it in the stereo to play their cover of “Sailing.”
  • 2: Barenaked Ladies- I love “Brian Wilson.” It’s interesting to ponder famous people and their foibles.
  • 1: B.B. King – from “The Letter”

    I’ve got a good mind to give up living
    And go shopping instead.

  • 1: The Beatles – it’s probably sad that I only have one Beatles CD, and that it’s the “#1” compilation.  Lame.  Here’s my word association run with this album:
    • Features “Paperback writer,” a song I’d assumed was one of their minor, and less-well known songs.  I assumed this because until I moved to Florida, I had NEVER heard it before.
    • When I moved to Florida from Minnesota, a buddy gave me a mix he called “Riles’ Road Rage” which featured a variety of songs I was unfamiliar with.  It included Paperback writer, which I presumed was a nod to my early aspiration to be a novelist.
    • When I still thought I was training to be a novelist (i.e., freshman year of college), I mentioned this to a family friend who scoffed and said, “Everyone in college plans to be a novelist.”
    • The paperback writer nod could also have been part of the perennial misunderstanding of my graduate studies.  To anyone outside, including my father, my studies meant I was learning to MAKE films.  Studying film isn’t something people understand as a career.  How many times co-workers said, on my parting day, “I’ll look for your name in the movie credits!”
  • 4: BeauSoleil – a whole bunch of cajun zydeco.  As with lots of my music, I came to this by way of inheriting my dad’s music collection.  I had known for a while that he enjoyed dancing to “cajun music,” but I really didn’t know what that meant.  Now I do — lots of accordion.  Strangely enough, Clancy just blogged about zydeco too.
  • 2: Beck – I don’t understand Beck.  I have two albums and enjoy listening to them a bit, but they seem odd to me.  And every time I try to think about them more deeply, I worried that L. Ron is hiding there in those weird beats.
  • 1: Bee Gees – The fact that I only have one Bee Gees CD, and it’s the greatest hits compilation, is a comforting balm to the shame of owning any Bee Gees at all, in the opposite way that only having one Beatles album is distinctly shameful.

Developments in linguistics, OR: Cute stuff my 2yo did this weekend

A mile in Daddy's shoes, and hat

  • New phrase 1: “Good Job!”
    Usage: Having successfully gone to the bathroom on the toilet, she gives herself a thumbs up and shouts, “Good Job!”
    Etymology: our own exuberance at her successful control of bodily functions.
  • New phrase 2: “See you ‘morrow!”
    Usage: Leaving the pet store today, I urged her to “Say bye to the birds.” Over my shoulder, she shouts, “Bye Birds! See you ‘morrow!”
    Etymology: Daycare, I presume, where “see you tomorrow” is part of the goodbye ritual.
  • New interest at the zoo: While Avery has shown ability to identify zoo animals occasionally, this is the first trip where she clearly expressed desire to see specific animals before we got to the zoo. In fact, when I tried to sneak a visit to the elephants in before the visit to the monkey house, she resolutely refused to look at the elephant. Only later, after seeing the monkeys and the giraffes, would she deign to visit the pachyderm house again. These three favorites are all featured in a Sesame Street zoo book we have. Thank God she didn’t start chanting to see Elmo.
  • On the more annoying side, the phrase “Avery do it!” has come into vogue in association, usually, with eating sloppy foods. When we have her in a position where we’re happy to have her get mess everywhere, such as breakfast oatmeal time, she pleads for us to feed her, but when we’re out and she’s dressed nicely, as tonight with ice cream at the Chinese Buffet, she obstinantly asserts her inalienable right to spoon her own pudding.

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood; Narrated by Campbell Scott

An excellent novel, if grim. Oryx and Crake tells the story of a world in which genetic engineering has gotten extremely sophisticated. These engineers have little sense of ethics or restraint, and not surprisingly, chaos ensues. It’s a pretty grim story, overall, but intricate and believable. Atwood has lots of good throwaway ideas, the most amusing/disgusting being “ChickieNobs,” a chicken-meat-growing genetic monster, with a head but no nerve organs or brain functions beyond circulating blood and nutrients to the body bits. “It’s sort of like a chicken hookworm.”

Here’s another bit I enjoyed, marked down for my use later:

For the same reason he’d taken to spending hours in the more obscure regions of the library stacks, ferreting out arcane lore. Better libraries, at institutions with more money, had long ago burned their actual books and kept everything on CD-ROM, but Martha Graham was behind the times in that, as in everything. Wearing a nose-cone filter to protect against the mildew, Jimmy grazed among the shelves of mouldering paper, dipping in at random.

Part of what impelled him was a stubbornness; resentment, even. The system had filed him among the rejects, and what he was studying was considered–at the decision-making levels, the levels of real power–an archaic waste of time. Well then, he would pursue the superfluous as an end in itself. He would be its champion, its defender and preserver. Who was it who’d said that all art was completely useless? Jimmy couldn’t recall, but hooray for him, whoever he was. The more obsolete a book was, the more eagerly Jimmy would add it to his inner collection. (195, emphasis mine)

Is this not a set of instructions for research? A mode for skimming the database and accumulating information? Jimmy uses his gleaned knowledge for comedic purposes in the local eateries, but it needn’t be just for entertainment. Those instructions: random selection, superfluity and obsolescence as selection critera, clearly operate outside the realm of literate rationality. I haven’t chewed through exactly what I would do with that method yet. Readers?

Finally, another bit of synchronicity, this time creepy. As I rode the el into work yesterday, I was listening to the book on my iPod. Jimmy remembers his days holed up in the dome, listening to the news and trying to understand what is happening. The newscaster says:

England closes ports and airports.
All communication from India has ceased.
Hospitals are off limits until further notice. If you feel ill, drink plenty of water and call the following hotline number.
Do not, repeat do not, attempt to exit cities. (342)

Outside my train window, we roll by this:
Kill the City