Friday, January 30, 2009

I'd like to buy a vowel? Wait, no.

Hey everybody. Fun news to share. I just returned from Los Angeles yesterday, where I was a contestant on Jeopardy! I took the online test a year ago today, auditioned in Minneapolis in March, and got the call inviting me to be on the show in December. I'll probably be writing a series of posts about my experience over the course of the next few months because, until my airdate, I'm not allowed to reveal anything about results.

Speaking of which, my airdate is Wednesday, March 25th. Check your local listings.

If you haven't read my previous posts about the audition process, click the Jeopardy tag at the bottom of the post.

One thing I'm pretty sure I can safely say is that I didn't do this:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Weeklypedia Quiz #16: Two-to-the-fourth!

It's trivia! Good hunting, people.
  1. US Attorney David Iglesias, whose firing from his post in New Mexico was part of a larger scandal related to political hiring practices in the Department of Justice, was the inspiration for Tom Cruise's character in this film.
  2. If Garret Hobart had not died during his vice presidency, or if he had lived one year longer, this man might not have become President of the United States.
  3. News of the Camp David Accords between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat interrupted the broadcast of the first episode of this television series, the remake of which started in 2003 on the Sci-fi Channel.
  4. Before he became Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, led the military campaign that ended this leader's Hundred Days return.
  5. Following the results of a 2008 vote, in June 2009 this will become an independent country within the Kingdom of Denmark.
  6. During World War I, the British Royal Family was renamed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to this less-German-sounding name.
  7. The eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1816 in what is now Indonesia may have been the cause of short-term climate changes in the American northeast, Canadian maritime provinces, and northern Europe, an effect that was named "The Year Without a" this.
  8. During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the symptoms of this genetic disorder were typically treated with asprin, which, as a blood thinner, only made things worse.
Last quiz's answers are up. So say we all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stupid complaints about video games

The estimable Andrew Sullivan flags on his blog a complaint by a man named Horning about Guitar Hero and its video game ilk. This piece deserves Fisking, tout de suite! I'm all too happy to oblige.

If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar?

Because neither of these activities involve a feedback loop. You're not getting any response back FROM the music as to whether what you're doing works, let alone in such an aural/tactile combination. Guitar Hero and its successor, Rock Band, let you pick apart a piece of rock music in a way that you can't, short of learning it in a band or having the master tapes and a mixing board to play with.

Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play?

Some players do. Alex Rigopulous, co-creator of both games (pictured far right in the photo above), recently explained in an interview on the Freakonomics blog that while the singing and drumming portions of the games are decent simulations of the respective "instruments," and therefore are somewhat direct training in and of them selves, even the simplified guitar parts have inspired some kids and adults to become more serious about learning to play guitar.

For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar.

And an amp? And lessons? And the significantly larger amount of time it takes to learn real guitar vs. the game? Of course, by saying this, I play into this last bit of the intro:

I can't help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty.

and later, finally,

The next thing you know, everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference.

No! This whole piece is written like someone who has neither been a serious ensemble musician nor has played the game at any length. Many of the game's enthusiasts, including nearly everybody involved in its creation, are musicians. While there may be some subgroup that plays Guitar Hero and says "good enough. I don't need to learn how to play guitar." Honestly, I don't believe that many of these would have been serious about learning the instrument in the first place. But others use it as a bridge into playing actual music. And even for those who don't, part of the fun is in experiencing music in a way formerly accessible only to those who had the passion to play an instrument. Check out Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, getting his butt kicked by the bass part in his own song, and celebrating how the game can train a non-musician how to pick out a specific instrumental line from the music.

Mr. Horning, the major proponents of these games are not suggesting that Guitar Hero is anything approaching a substitute for real musicianship. They're saying it helps broaden musicianship to a wider audience. But they are, indeed, also saying you're a "fuddy-duddy nabob of negativism." But you're wrong on the merits, besides.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Goodbye, President Bush; it's been "awesome"

You may recall that when Pope Benedict XVI visited the US last year, and gave a speech at the White House, President Bush greeted him afterwards, "thank you, your holiness. Awesome speech." Har har.

Last weekend, the Navy commissioned its newest aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush. At the event, President George W. Bush called it "an awesome ship for an awesome man." Hee hee.

Last Sunday, when I heard about this latest use of the word awesome on the news, something occurred to me. Whereas many people today hear Bush use the word in these contexts and think, "oh, he's tone-deaf because he's using a synonym for 'kick-ass' or 'sweet' inappropriately at a solemn occasion. This is the view of Bush seen in sketch comedy, and exemplified by Robot Chicken's "Tacos Rule." But now I wonder if perhaps his use of the word awesome is tone-deaf, but in a different way. I think he's using the formal definition of the word (quoted here from Webster:
1: expressive of awe <awesome tribute>
2 a: inspiring awe awesome task> b: terrific , extraordinary awesome time>
But there's two problems.

One, I don't think he has the gravitas to pull it off. In general, high-flown language sounds awkward coming out of his mouth. This criticism is predictable and boring, coming from a lib'rul like me.

Two, assuming this is what he's trying to do, the culture around him is unused to this use of the word. Consider the following examples I've made up, which I think would have the same effect, even if said without irony:
  • "This is sweet candy."
  • "Central American leftist guerrillas were radical."
  • "Aluminum chambers used to enrich uranium are tubular."
  • "This press release about cold fusion is completely bogus."
So, even if he doesn't mean to sound like someone who was a big partier until the mid-80s, his choice of words doesn't help.

Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Bush on making it to the end of his presidency. I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. There is a certain entertainment value I'm sure I'll miss, but thankfully we've got Joe Biden and the US Congress to fill the gap.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Weeklypedia Quiz #15: QuinceaƱera

Shall we play a game?
1. This Japanese term used in the Americas and Australia refers to the second generation -- children of Japanese immigrants born in their adoptive homelands.

2. He was the first US President to serve his entire presidency without a Vice President.

3. He was the last US President to serve his entire presidency without a Vice President.

4. President Benjamin Harrison refused to say which order he signed these two states into the Union. In effect, they joined simultaneously.

5. One winter in the 1870s, young Chester Greenwood perfected these items of clothing he'd invented by using flat spring steel in place of the baling wire he'd tried first.

6. Many brands of root beer trace their origins to this year, in which the 18th Amendment was ratified, beginning Prohibition.

7. It was the last play that Shakespeare wrote.

8. (This one takes two steps.) It is the capital of the nation of origin of the characters who shot & killed Doc Brown at the beginning of the movie "Back to the Future."
Woo! Trivia!

Previous quiz's answer key was long overdue, now posted 2 1/2 months later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Rod Blagojevich Book Club

Although not to the extent suggested by back-to-back blogs about him, Rod Blagojevich fascinates me. What a bizarre, ballsy, venal man. Of course, now that he's run circles around Harry Reid (favorite blog title of the past few weeks: I Want To Play Poker With Harry Reid -- seriously, he's a terrible Majority Leader; how can we get rid of him?), he has fewer means at his disposal to inject himself into public matters outside of his impeachment trial and ongoing legal "troubles."

That said, almost every time he does make a statement, he drops some British literature into it. In his appearance on December 19th in which he claimed no wrongdoing, he quoted Rudyard Kipling's "If—":
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating
I guess you can't accuse him of self-diminishment. In this respect, Blago found a fellow traveler in Rod Burris.

When he was impeached by the IL House, he referenced the short story "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" by British author Alan Silltoe, comparing himself to the protagonist. Of course, in that story, the protagonist is a criminal.

And at his subsequent press conference, he quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses":
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Again, wow. It's been said (and made into a Charlie Kaufman movie) that we're all the protagonist of our own story, but Blagojevich seems to think he's the protagonist of everyone else's as well.

Before long, Wikipedia will have to have a tag for "works of prose or poetry publicly referenced by Rod Blagojevich". Maybe Blago missed his true calling. Rather than being a corrupt politician, he could have been an English professor. I mean this with no intended offense to any actual English professor. But seriously, his potty mouth would've made hm immensely popular with the first-year students of some private liberal arts school. "Alright, motherfuckers, I'm going to need your papers," he might say, to the warm chuckle of a classful of jaded 18 year-olds.

So, a question for people who know more about British literature than I do: what will he reference next? I know he's already quoted Tennyson, but I'm hoping that upon the IL Senate's voting on the impeachment, he'll find it appropriate to quote from "The Charge of the Light Brigade":
Theirs not to make reply
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die.
Death being, in this case, political.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The cravenness of Blagojevich and Rush

Let it never be said that I'm disinclined to call foul when it's a Democrat that's pulling something awful.

It makes sense to me that Rod Blagojevich would make a Senate appointment despite his indictment. If you are trying to project an air of non-guilt, but don't have a lot of non-guilty resources, you move forward as if you aren't guilty. I don't know exactly what Rep. Bobby Rush's angle is here, besides making a power play over the Senate and Obama. He is, after all, the only person to have defeated Obama in an election (for US House in 2000 -- he trounced the president-elect largely by playing the "he's not black enough" card). And although I find Rush's race-baiting arguments for the acceptance of Roland Burris to be disgusting on their face (1. don't "hang or lynch the appointee" because of Blago's actions; 2. there aren't any black people in the Senate, therefore nobody will want to go on record against a black man and show themselves to be like George Wallace or Bull Connor), it's the hypocricy of this man making these arguments that really pisses me off.

FIRST, here's what Rep. Rush was saying 23 days ago:
I believe that the acts that are alleged to have been committed by the Governor are so heinous that he has forfeited his right to appoint someone to fill the seat of President-Elect Barack Obama. My bottom line is that the Governor should not be the one to make the appointment to this important office.
What changed his mind?

SECOND, four years ago, Rush apparently wasn't terribly bothered by the idea of there not being any African-Americans in the Senate. He opposed both Barack Obama and Joyce Washington, the only other black candidate, in the Democratic primary for Senate in 2004. Apparently he thought millionaire Blair Hull was the right man for the job, and race wasn't an important qualification. What changed his mind?

This is absolutely scummy behavior, and he deserves to be called out on both of these instances of hypocrisy. I hope someone in the mainstream media grows a pair and does so, although I'm not encouraged so far. More importantly, though, I hope that the extent to which Rush has overplayed his hand here comes around and bites him in the ass. I do think that encouraging qualified minority candidates for high office is important, and I think that this bullshit only diminishes other, more constructive efforts.

Incidentally, if you're looking for entertaining and interesting political blogs, I recommend among others those of Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic and Robert A. George, who writes for outlets including the NY Post. Both are young or youngish and African-American. Coates is liberal, George a conservative. I enjoy their writing.