Friday, October 17, 2008

No, it's not SANCHEZ!

Whoa: two posts, one day.

I don't read Time Magazine's Swampland political blog every day, but when I do, and when I encounter a post by Karen Tumulty, there's a pretty good chance she'll refer to her writing for the print edition of Time. And when she does, she invariably uses the words "dead-tree," as in the "dead-tree version" of the magazine. I find this annoying. The word print is three letters and one syllable shorter than "dead-tree." It's a needless affectation that's perfectly fine as a spice, but her over-reliance on it simply weakens the phrase and draws attention to itself.

Kind of like John McCain with "my friends" or Joe Biden with "Literally — literally!" for that matter.

A simple Google search for ["karen tumulty" "dead tree"] finds 704 occurences on the web, including 290 on the Swampland blog alone. This is ridiculous. Tumulty's first post on the blog was on January 7th, 2007. She seems to have made 802 posts. So about 36% of her posts use this phrase, which occurs on average once every 2 and 1/4 days. Overuse!

Now, I don't want to impugn her reporting or commentary, with which I have no particular beef. But someone at Swampland needs to stage an intervention, like Dave Foley's character in one of my favorite Kids in the Hall sketches:


Say the right things when electioneering

Updated 10/21/08 -- see below.

Some of you might have heard rumors to the effect of "you can't vote if you're wearing a campaign button." This varies by state, but yes, this is technically true in places, including Minnesota.
From MINN. STAT. § 211B.11(1) (2004): Soliciting prohibited. A person may not provide political badges, political buttons, or other political insignia to be worn at or about the polling place on the day of a primary or election. A political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day.
Emphasis mine. Unlike many states, this is pretty-clear cut. So if you're wearing a campaign button, shirt or sticker, you may be asked to cover it up, or leave and come back without it or with it covered. After that, theoretically, you should have no problems. If you're persistent in your electioneering, you could be fined or even arrested. It's a misdemeanor, as I understand it (lawyer dad, help me out here?). Bottom line: wear a jacket or sweatshirt over your Obama shirt and pocket your button before heading into your polling place.

Spread the word.

(Post title from "Electioneering" by Radiohead from OK Computer, easily one of my top ten favorite albums. Music here, paired with some crappy skateboarding video that looks like it was shot by an alternate universe Spike Jonze whose career never took off.)

Update! Although the comments seem not to be working for him, my Dad responded with some legal info:
"Lawyer Dad" here. Actually, the statute says a violation is a "petty misdemeanor" (which is supposed to signify something about the penalty that may be imposed rather than describing the legislature's action in criminalizing such trivial conduct). I took a look at the criminal statutes (not my area of expertise) and can't find anything that spells out exactly what the penalty for a "petty misdemeanor" is, but I think it's probably limited to a fine. So you probably won't get thrown in the slammer for wearing an Obama button -- or even a McCain button -- to the polls. But why run the risk of riling up a cranky election judge, who probably takes his/her limited authority much too seriously?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Halloween Traditions: Creature Feature

Another Halloween tradition I have kept recently is participation in Creature Feature, the annual improvised monster movie show put on by Huge Theater. Since 2004, Creature Feature has been a staple of the Minneapolis improv scene every October, and I've had a freaking blast playing with a group of funny, talented people.

Here's how it works: every show, one performer is The Monster for the night. They get a suggestion from the audience of a monster that might star in a movie, and a title for that movie. For instance, this past Thursday: "Furballs From Hell," about a gigantic, murderous hamster. The rest of the cast sets a scene, describing an atmospheric location in which the "movie" will open. Then the Monster actor does a solo scene as the creature's first victim. After their grisly death, the cast introduces themselves in monologues as the characters they will play for the rest of the show. The scenes that follow show the characters conspiring, teaming up, backbiting, hiding, fleeing, and getting picked off by the hamsters or butterfly or clowns or mermaids or whatever.

Some favorite Creature Feature memories:
  • Kim Sigler crosses gender lines to play a Cub Scout caught between two rival park rangers / surrogate fathers (Butch Roy & Dan Hetzel). She spends much of the set running up & down their respective observation towers as they yell at each other.
  • Tim Uren plays a registered sex offender who ultimately prevails over the monster of the week, a Minotaur. Following his victory, he explains that it is he who is the real monster.
  • Aric McKeown, week after week and year after year, comes up with some of my favorite character names including Rusty Trombone, Dr. Assless Chaps, and Prof. F. T. Quickdraw. His names are the ones I never forget in the middle of a set.
If you've seen the show in the past, please share some of your favorite bits in the comments.

You should come see the show. This year as last, we're playing in a double bill with the Survivors of the Undead Plague, who I've written about before, and are really excellent. Their set this past week, in which the heirs of Wendy's and McDonald's teamed up in a helicopter and then a tank to brave hordes of zombies and rescue their aggressively lesbian half-sister while an eight-year-old grew up really fast as he was forced to take out both of his zombie parents and drive a car, was a thing of beauty. Come see them so we can talk knowingly together about how awesome they were.

Here are the details on the remaining shows:

Creature Feature, featuring the Survivors of the Undead Plague
October 16th, 23rd and 30th at 8PM
Tickets $10 via, call 612-332-6620, or visit the box office at 2605 Hennepin Ave S in Minneapolis

Creature Feature
Directed by Mike Fotis
Lauren Anderson
Fred Beukema
Joe Bozic
Josh Eakright

Eric Knobel
Hannah Kuhlmann
Nels Lennes
Aric McKeown
Michael Ritchie
Jen Scott
Tim Uren

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Halloween Traditions: It's Astounding

It's October, which means that it will soon be time for one of my stupid personal traditions: the annual listening of the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now I don't really like the movie, and have only seen it all the way through twice. But since, I guess, 1994, listening to the soundtrack has been part of my preparation for Halloween. You see, that fall, around this time, I took the PSAT exam at my high school. On the way into school, I found a cassette of the film's soundtrack lying on the sidewalk. It was in very good condition. "Hey, free tape," I said to myself as I pocketed my musical windfall.

Not long thereafter, I was charged with carving the family pumpkin, a project my father only tolerated so long as my brother and I were incapable of doing it ourselves. I sat down at the kitchen table with my spread of newspapers, assorted cutting and scooping tools, and my walkman, loaded up with a Halloween mixtape featuring the theme from Ghostbusters, Werewolves of London (this was before learning of other, more excellent Warren Zevon tunes) and other appropriate fare. This tape was pretty short, so I turned to my recent find to keep the October mood going. I think my disdain for the movie has something to do with my being a band geek instead of a theater geek, although that's an assertion I think my brother, a theater geek with no particular fondness for the film, might protest. Anyway, the music is catchy as hell, and listening to it, you don't have to watch it, or be surrounded by assholes in their underwear throwing toast at the screen.

Thus a neural connection was made between The Halloween Spirit (TM) and this music. And so, every fall, once, as the days get shorter and crisper and the big orange squash await their slaughter, I revisit those halcyon days of 1994, just before the Democrats lost both houses of Congress.

Postscript: As long as we're talking Halloween music, back in 2005 during the Current's first year on the air, they did special programming for the holiday, wherein all day on the 31st of October, they played Halloween- and ghost- and death-themed music. It was fun, and exposed me to The White Stripes' excellent cover of Tegan & Sara's "Walking With A Ghost," which made it onto the 2005 Beukemix as a result.

Post-Postscript: When I hear "Tegan & Sara," it half-registers as "Teebo & Sara," and then I think that they're an Ewok singing duo. This only increases my enjoyment of their music.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

George Orwell's boring blog

Earlier this year, the Orwell Trust, overseers of the Orwell Prize, apparently one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Britain, announced that they would be publishing George Orwell's personal diaries as blog entries online, 70 years to the date after each. I immediately added the blog to my Netvibes page. How fascinating it would be, I thought, to read the daily thoughts of this great writer, who becomes more a favorite with every piece of his that I read? Especially given the timing, just before Hitler in Munich and as the world spirals towards war.

The diary started on August 9, 1938. Sometime between whenever they announced the blog in July and the first post on August 9, 2008, I forgot the descriptions offered by the Trust in the announcement. As such I was quite disappointed by the first couple of months of the blog. It was boring. First is about a month of updates on the weather (some of them repeated and four-words long) and on the snakes his gardeners killed. Then his trip to North Africa, apparently to recuperate from grave illness.* This was more detailed and substantial, but to be honest, I've never been a big fan of travelogues, at least in written form. I'd usually rather experience the place myself. To be fair, that's definitely the narrow opinion of a person born into a comfortable life in the late-20th-Century age of relatively cheap airfare.

Anyway, in the blog/diary, geopolitics made its first appearance yesterday:
After the crisis was over everyone here showed great relief and was much less stolid about it than they had been during the trouble itself. Educated Frenchwoman in official position, known to us personally, writes letter of congratulation to Daladier. It is perfectly evident from the tone of the press that even in the big towns where there is a white proletariat there was not the smallest enthusiasm for the idea of going to war for the sake of Czechoslovakia.
This is fascinating, but I'm still looking forward to more. Before this paragraph he talked about the low quality of the newspaper, and immediately after he starts talking about Moroccan crafts.

Incidentally, the title of this post is a purposefully incendiary attempt to lure Orwell into a blog fight. He never responds to comments, so I don't know how successful this will be. You hear me, George? Your blog sucks! Weaksauce!

* I want to go back to this point. I'm amazed by the idea of a long-term international vacation of recuperation. On our honeymoon, Melissa and I got fleeting tastes of this sort of leisure in Venice and on the Etruscan Coast, and we liked it. Understatement**. None of the other few times I've been abroad - including the rest of our honeymoon - would be recommendable to someone recuperating from hemorrhage in the lungs. To the contrary, these trips, none of which could be classified as "extreme" by any stretch, have typically required recuperation upon return to the US. Maybe I'm a wuss?

** Seriously, these places are amazing.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Palin: Babel Fish

(Updated, but then retracted, see below)

From last night's debate, Gov. Sarah Palin, translated, it would seem, from the original Japanese:

"Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate."


Palin's responses in interviews and in the debate last night have tended to remind me of three things. First, as suggested, the grammatical diaspora and non sequitur bonanza that is the Japanese language as poorly translated into English, exemplified by the classic Mr. Sparkle commercial on the Simpsons. Second, Word Salad as used by computer spammers to string together a reasonable-sounding email that will sneak past your filter to try and sell you cheap watches. Third, and this just occurred to me, she comes across almost like a primitive Turing Test artificial intelligence, like ELIZA.

Let me explain:

Alan Turing, a pioneering computer scientist and cryptographic hero of World War II (and tragic figure in being gay at a time that homosexuality was illegal in Britain, prosecution of which led to his suicide), posited in 1950 that the test of an artificial intelligence is whether, when interacting with a human being, the AI can pass as human. ELIZA, named for Eliza Doolittle of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, was a simple attempt at AI using the psychoanalitic technique of turning a patient's statement around as a question. You chat with ELIZA like you were on an instant messenger program, and she chats back. This idea has evolved into chat bots, which have been used as amusement, advertisement, and, annoyingly, customer service tools.

Anyway, these AIs are programmed with simple rules to mimic the behaviors of a human being. I am of the opinion that Sarah Palin has been similarly coached to mimic the behavior of a candidate with a basic working knowledge of national policy and politics. Her answers have consistently seemed copied-and-pasted, often without regard for their appropriateness. This was exemplified by the bit last night where, instead of answering the question on what spending items she and McCain might have to give up, given the increasingly staggering defecit, she riffed on her energy talking points again. Now, granted, Biden's answer sort of went at the question sideways, but it at least had some relationship to the question. His answer acknowledged the existence of the question. Add to this example her constantly looking down at her cards, her general sense of recitation, and especially her recent collapses in follow-up questions, and I think it's clear that all she has to work with is memorized chunks of stump speech. Stump speech wood chips, if you will.

The professional Conservatives, of course, love her. She's awesome. She rocks. Performed brilliantly. They often point, as does the Wall Street Journal editorial, to her convention speech as evidence that she's a natural. Look: opponents of Barack Obama have often said that he's only great with a teleprompter. I happen to disagree with that, but for those same critics to now say Palin's a natural is laughable. Here's what she's done: she read, off of a teleprompter, a speech written by this guy (wonder what he thinks of her wolf policies - incidentally, the Humane Society has never endorsed a presidential candidate before), most of which had been written before she was picked. In public appearances she has recycled (mulched?) pieces of that speech, and she has attempted to do the same in interviews and in the debate, with mixed success depending on the ability of people to ask her follow-up questions. But there's no "there" there. Even when she's talking about the subject that she's supposedly a top expert on, she has no idea what she's talking about.

Palin has a background as a sportscaster. She's good at reading material prepared for her. Any competent former broadcaster could have done the same. Like Amelia Santaniello. Or Ted Baxter.

Update: Check it out. Reading a script:

Retracted: Apparently the debate commission provided blank paper - no notes or pre-prepared anything were allowed out on stage. I retract my suggestion that she was reading something she brought with her. I stand by everything above the Update, though.