Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mistaken Assumption

At Medium's "OneZero" blog, Dave Gershgorn writes about how the combination of a powerful algorithm and extensive data sets means the Spotify streaming music site "knows exactly what you want to listen to," according to the headline.

Except, of course, it doesn't. At least the different times I've tested the waters with it, anyway. If you get a hankering for an outlier number among your fave bands or artists, then it's not long before the algorithm runs out of things that resemble what you picked and it flails around through things that might be in the vein of the tune you've chosen, if you can somehow manage to squint your ears. It may include songs where your entered performer worked with someone else, and start to veer away from the entry you made because it finds more of the other performer. And it doesn't know that some of those duets or band appearances are really not what you want to listen to: I enjoy a lot of Keely Smith's music but I've got little patience for the vocal mugging and goofoffery of her onetime husband Louis Prima so I don't really enjoy listening to their joint work. Spotify don't know that and it takes it awhile to learn unless I spell it out in some way.

Sometimes it leaves weird gaps. Playlists that include the mid-80s cowpunk outfit Lone Justice ought to lead a listener to singer Maria McKee's solo work, since she has performed that way far longer than she ever did with the band. But it doesn't. Enter either Lone Justice or McKee into the search engine and get the one you enter, but no recognition the other has any work at all. Not to mention the omission of Lone Justice's second album entirely. Sure, they show up as other entries under the "related artists" button, but that's not the algorithm finding them -- that's me.

And of course there are the bands which aren't, for whatever reason, on Spotify. Old musicians, niche acts, favorite small-scale performers who don't rise to the service's notice.

I don't really have anything against Spotify or other streamers other than how they pay artists the next best thing to nothin' for their work. But the idea that its algorithm -- or any algorithm -- knows "exactly" what I want to listen to is silly. After all, I don't always know, so how will a program?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Gravity Shmavity

As some folks on a photo-taking excursion found out, humpback whales are biiiig critters. Even more so when they leave the water so close you can count those stripey-looking things on their bellies.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Nice Try, Mr. Comey

If any reader of this post happens to be in touch with former FBI director James Comey any time between now and election day, please let him know that his offers of bribery -- as tempting as they may be -- will not induce me to vote for President Trump in November 2020.

(And yes, I know he was making a joke. So was I. I know full well I have no readers).

Saturday, October 26, 2019


I like this kid, who dropped the T-shirt he was holding to reveal a "Fight for freedom - stand with Hong Kong" shirt once he saw that the arena "Dance Cam" was on him. Cameraman yanked it around to get him out of frame but I bet he sweat some later on.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Time Capsule

Thirty-four years ago this month, I sat down in front of my stereo with some new albums, some 45s and one of Maxell's finest products in a dorm room in Evanston, IL to put together a tape of the stuff I liked best so I could carry it in a Walkman -- said Walkman fitting in my backpack much better than said stereo did.

I recently found this particular cassette in cleaning out some boxes. I think I made close to 30 in all before switching to a CD player that could play with both headphones and an adapter plugged into my car's tape deck. The one pictured above, creatively titled Tunes IV, is probably the only one I still have. I don't know if it would play without breaking.

Judging by the playlist, I had recently seen the Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer movie Into the Night, which featured some killer songs by B. B. King on the soundtrack along with a couple of R&B standards like "Let's Get It On."

I had also recently attended a record sale because I remember unloading several 12" singles a few years ago with titles I see on the tape, and some of them had the good old "promo copy only - not for sale" stamp on them. Tent record sales did not pay much heed to such, it seems. I went to more than a few of these during my Chicagoland days, but the one that sticks out as having the best collection of loot was in a tent in the parking lot of a mall in Skokie. The search engine answer says that would be the Old Orchard Mall, but I don't remember. They could have come from Big Daddy's Records and Tapes or Rose Records in Evanston, but I don't recall ever coming out of either of those with that big of a haul at one time.

The 45s, on the other hand, were almost certainly from Laury's Discount Records, which had a store basically across the street from campus. They were not from Vintage Vinyl, which was the Jack Black character from Hi Fidelity made into a business.

Since this was the fourth one of these I'd made, I'd gotten the process down pretty well. I'd also recorded a big chunk of songs off the Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974 box set for my parents, so I'd mastered how much time to leave between songs and where to drop the needle so I could be ready to un-pause the "record" function at the right spot. Using the "pause" button made sure that the tape would not have a bunch of start and stop clicks on it in between the songs. I could also gauge how much time was left on a 45-minute side to see whether I had room for another song or it was time to flip it over.

The major purpose of these tapes -- which I don't remember calling "mixtapes" even if that's the most common word for them now -- was to have the songs from an album you really wanted to hear available without the baggage from the album. That was also the purpose of the 45s -- I'd heard the Charlie Daniels Bands' "American Farmer" on the radio and Daniels was, I think, donating some of the profits to Farm Aid. But the rest of the Me and the Boys album, with the exception of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye," was eminently skippable. And "Take on Me" was the first and second-to-last US charting single from Hunting High and Low from A-ha -- the rest were interchangeable synth-pop weighed down with singer Morten Harket's pretentiousness that were just as skippable.

Another purpose was sharing music with friends -- trading stuff around to showcase new tunes or record something for someone else who in turn sent along what you might request.

And there was the most serious purpose, of course, which was to pass along a tape to a crush with songs that you wanted him or her to like while including musical hints that you also wanted him or her to like you. Mixtapes as icebreakers, though, were usually a high-school tactic. By the time you were in college they were meant to communicate things in an actual relationship; your chromium dioxide Cyrano shows your Roxanne the feelings your own de Neuvillette words could not.

That taper was 21, and imagined his next few years getting his foot in the door at a newspaper somewhere, preferably a city of some size, where he and his buddies would hang out at a neighborhood pub that on weekends featured cover band versions of '60s soul and R&B classics, and close out the late Fridays and Saturdays with a drenched, buzzed, tired swaying embrace of Someone Special as the slow last sax solo kept the night alive for a few more measures (He even had Someone in mind, but that proved a non-starter). He wound up at a county-seat daily where a whole lot of the people he met thought an adult with a library card was kind of peculiar, but that path led him to hear and answer the great call he serves today.

It's a better life, if only because it's real and the imagined one owes more to assorted scenes from movies than to reality. But every now and again a reminder crops up of what that other life was going to be and the memory is sweet before history and reality add the tang of melancholy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Total Response

I often chuckle when I see headlines along the lines of, "So and so did something, and Twitter was not having it," or "Twitter calls out" some social offender or other. It refers to the way that a large number of similarly thinking Twitter users will pile on to an undesirable tweet or statement or action someone does.

I chuckle because it's ridiculous. For one, most people signed up for Twitter use it pretty infrequently. And as that story notes, the group of frequent users doesn't share a lot of demographics with the majority of American society.

And I chuckle at the idea that Twitter is some kind of independent entity that responds to events with some kind of will of its own. Twitter is a social media platform with at least 150 million users and at most one mind.

Monday, October 21, 2019

To Immortal Memory...

Two hundred and fourteen years ago the Royal Navy won at Trafalgar, putting paid to the last serious Napoleonic attempt to break its blockade and dominance of the seas. It cost them the slight, one-armed and one-eyed man who might have been their greatest commander, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Though Nelson's personal legacy was mixed -- his one child came not with his wife but from a long affair with a married woman, for example, and his daughter was named "Horatia" -- his professional impact is difficult to overestimate.

Nelson's body was returned to Gibraltar packed in a cask of brandy, where it was transferred to a lead-lined coffin filled with wine. His Majesty's sailors then began referring to their rum as a "drop of Nelson's blood," and a time-keeping shanty grew from it. It's usually titled "Roll the Old Chariot Along," but now and again appears under the alternate heading.

Pure and dulcet perfection of tone, as the video makes clear, is not required to present it to the masses.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Worth It?

When he won in 1992, Bill Clinton was seen as a boon to the Democrats, showing a path forward for a party that had been sitting in the hole George McGovern dug for the previous 20 years. He was able to gather the southern voters who had taken a chance on but been burned by Jimmy Carter, and who had been left to shrug confusedly at Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Whether it was true or not, several Democratic leaders felt a second George H.W. Bush win would mean decades of being an also-ran party when it came to the White House, as Bush the elder could institutionalize the Reagan Revolution and marry it to the kind of middle-of-the-road GOP Bush represented. In defeating him, Clinton showed that Democrats could run viable candidates and win elections -- an important message in a country that tends to bandwagon winners.

But Bill brought baggage -- a platform for the political ambitions of his wife Hillary. Although her Senate win was fueled as much by the part of her image that generated sympathy for the wife of a known adulterer and womanizer, she probably could have found a way to stay in the public eye had Bill been either more faithful, more truthful or more careful. From the Senate she cast her gaze on her own presidential run, which finished with the embarrassing primary loss to a first-term senator from Illinois just two years removed from his own state legislature. She did her party duty by taking a role in the administration of her former opponent, and from that undistinguished tenure made a second "can't miss" run for the Oval Office.

She found, unfortunately, a country far more divided than she had known when she was more active politically and one far less willing to forgive her disdain and complete lack of skill as a retail politician. So she went down in defeat again, this time to a man who'd been a Republican for about 15 minutes and who engendered nearly as much antipathy as she did. In the process she deepened the nation's political divisions and served as a reminder that a chunk of the Democratic party looks upon large swathes of the United States citizenry as bigoted Neandertals.

And she continues to do more to help Republicans and President Trump than almost anyone who doesn't work for his campaign except maybe Beto O'Rourke. As Taylor Millard writes at Hot Air, her recent intimations that Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 race, is a "Russian asset" may or may not be as unhinged as they sound. But either way, they are incredibly stupid.

A number of GOP folks have tired of the president and seek an alternative to him, as well as to the current three Democratic front runners -- one of whom pretends to not be a millionaire, one of whom pretended to be Native American and one of whom pretended to be Neil Kinnock. And while Gabbard seems a little too ready to be friendly to foreign autocrats, she'd at least reduce the number of them on the Oval Office speed dial down to one. They might squint and hold their nose to vote for her, but they'll down a bottle of bourbon and pull the lever again for Captain Combover if one of the current three leaders wins out.

Every time 2016's defeated nominee blasts forth with yet another of her deranged theories about her loss that doesn't include an admission that she was a lousy candidate who ran a terrible campaign, she reminds iffy voters why they didn't want her in the White House. And she reminds them of the party that nominated and supported her, and why they believe they can't trust it.

Things were pretty good for Democrats, White-House wise, from 1992 to 2000. But the price continues to be high long after they figured they'd made the last payment for it.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Once Upon a Time...

Much of the time I think Quentin Tarantino is a twerp, and it's tough to forgive him for bringing Eli Roth into contact with people who let him make movies, but every now and again he does something right. QT will not recut his recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood release to meet Chinese censorship demands that his movie be nicer to Bruce Lee.

This means Hollywood probably won't show in Chinese theaters and Chinese fans will see pirated versions if they see any at all. Let's hope someone emails this story to Steve Kerr.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Kinda Sorta

Since Kyle Mills began writing the late Vince Flynn's signature character, Mitch Rapp, with 2015's The Survivor, he's managed to bring some positive contributions to the on-edge assassin's story that helps keep the books from turning their familiar path into a rut. In his third book, Enemy of the State, Mills even made a Rapp version of a buddy movie, teaming him with characters from earlier books. Sure, those characters were definitely not prizes and the team less stable than hyped-up plutonium, but Mills somehow managed to bring the word "quirky" into the Rapp universe in a way that worked.

But Mills' most recent spin with Rapp, Lethal Agent, seems to have fallen into the rut side of things, using a lot of standard Rapp and thriller motifs in pretty tired ways. Mullah Sayid Halabi, thwarted by Mitch Rapp in his plans to stir up chaos throughout the Middle East and export it to the West, has come to believe his own pride caused Allah to desert him and allow Rapp to succeed. His new plan won't involve armies or combatants but weaponized viruses. The disease may even spread back into his own homelands, but those who do not die will be the true believers, servants of Allah who can rebuild society along his desired lines. Halabi's plan will use deception and misdirection to bring death to the unbelieving West. And after a disastrous attempt to kidnap Rapp fails, he decides he will even leave his revenge up to the will of Allah himself.

For his part, Mitch Rapp finds himself operating in the unfamiliar world of Mexican cartels, expert in neither the language nor the culture of his enemies. The sketchy clues which point him in this direction could be a part of Halabi's plan or another layer of deception -- with Rapp hung out to dry while a ruthlessly ambitious senator uses the nation's own enemies as stepping stones in her bid for the White House.

Despite the interesting characterization that Mills gives to Sayid Halabi, Agent is really not much more than a series of action set pieces strung together without a lot of organic reasoning behind them. Mills even offers up a segment of Rapp as the quarry in a version of the Most Dangerous Game trope that's nearing its centenary year. Rapp shoots these guys, then he shoots those guys, and in between he grouses about politicians, even the best of whom are just a little bit better than no good. Mills' commentary on our nation's modern divided political landscape comes in didactic diatribes, either from one character or another or extended speed-bump musings.

Mills' own work showed enough mediocrity to make the decision to sign him to continuing Mitch Rapp stories an iffy proposition. Unfortunately Lethal Agent is pretty much what they might have feared they would get from a Kyle Mills version of the hero. But since Mills had done well until now, there's good reason to hope he will be back in the swing next time.
There's something fun about reading stories set in places that you know and have seen, so Bryan Thomas Schmidt's first "John Simon thriller," Simon Says, has some neat features for folks who know Kansas City and the surrounding area. Schmidt references known streets, locales and landmarks in his story of a police detective operating in KC as the 21st century's third decade bleeds into its fourth. Electric cars, some autonomously driven, and other day-after-tomorrow tech clues the reader that we are not dealing with today's world but doesn't make things so weird that we can't relate.

Simon and his partner stake out a warehouse based on a tip from a snitch -- and find themselves in a gunfight over containers of stolen tech and art. Both belong to a wealthy and well-connected gallery owner and the pressure to make the case perfect comes quickly and heavily. But before the pair can even start the investigation,  Simon's partner is kidnapped and witnesses go missing as well. Because of his personal involvement, Simon is frozen out of the investigation and finds himself with only an artificial android, Julian, as help in digging where he's not supposed to.

Schmidt has edited a number of books and anthologies and his first novel, The Worker Prince, earned an honorable mention in Barnes & Noble's science fiction awards for 2011. As you'd expect from an editor, he has a good command of pacing and keeping his narrative on track. He doesn't commit too much exposition although sometimes he could have done with some more showing than telling. And he lets the sense of place he builds with the Kansas City streets, suburbs and neighborhoods give his story flavor without overwhelming it.

But the story itself and its characters are very much paint-by-numbers echoes of other work. Even the artificial person is just another interchangeable "fish out of water" partner to the gruff Simon. To some degree every crime procedural uses lots of the same elements: Harassed superiors, stifling bureaucracies, corrupt and powerful people ruthlessly covering their tracks, strained family relationships, heroes whose connection to past days and simpler ways mystifies and embarrasses their "modern world" co-workers. You could also say, though, that every painter uses the same three primary and three secondary colors and blends they create; but some produce masterpieces and others produce advertising. Both Schmidt and the Simon series could grow into something, but the former will have to work more into his potential in order for the latter to do so.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

UN Worthless. Also, Water Wet

You kind of wonder which is more pitiful. That the United Nations Human Rights Council will have as one of its members a country that runs out of toilet paper, or that the government of Venezuela thinks that being a member of the HRC is somehow a win.

The real losers, of course, continue to be the people of Venezuela, who will still have to get up in the morning and decide the best use to which their paper money should be put.

Looks and Sounds Like!

Man, what Frank Gorshin could have done with this technology!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Shooting Star!

Last Friday, a meteor apparently flashed through the sky over Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China; lots of cameras recorded the flash but there seems as yet to have been no reported impact.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James had no comment.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Knowing the Material

Eimi Haga saw an animated television program about ninjas when she was a child. Now a student at Mie University in Japan's Mie Prefecture, she signed up for a course in ninja history and was assigned a report on a visit to the Ninja Museum at Igaryu. Professor Yuji Yamada told students they would get extra credit for creativity.

When Ms. Haga handed in a blank piece of paper, the professor probably thought that it was not the first time he'd been given a blank assignment that would probably involve some kind of plea for mercy. But while Ms. Haga had indeed include a note with her assignment, it was not an appeal for academic leniency. It was an instruction to heat the paper. When Professor Yamada did so, words suddenly began to appear, as Ms. Hagi had used the technique of aburidashi to write her assignment. That process mixes crushed soybeans with water to create ink that disappears when it dries. It only reappears when heated.

Prof. Yamada was impressed enough with Ms. Hagas' work that he awarded her a top score for just the manner of her presentation once double-checking that the content was at least adequate. I have to say that I now wish I had taken a course in the history of ninjas, because a number of my assignments would probably have been improved if they were only partially visible.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

You Cannot Be Serious

I was going to make fun of an article published in the journal called The Contemporary Pacific by Dr. Holly M. Barker of the University of Washington. In it, Dr. Barker tales the creators of the show to task for assuming that they may use Bikini Bottom, a lagoon off the Bikini Atoll, as the setting for their show.

Back during the middle of the last century, the Bikini Islands were used by the United States for nuclear testing. The islanders had to be moved because their homelands became too irradiated to be safe, and so Dr. Barker thinks that setting the show there "normal[izes] the settler colonial takings of indigenous lands while erasing the ancestral Bikinian people from their nonfictional homeland." The show's theme song "provide[s] the viewer with an active role in defining Bikini Bottom as as a place of nonsense," since it points out that Sponge Bob's activities are often nonsensical.

Dr. Barker concludes with this admonition: “We should be uncomfortable with a hamburger-loving American community’s occupation of Bikini’s lagoon and the ways that it erodes every aspect of sovereignty.” I am not certain if this means that we are OK with the lagoon's occupation by hotdog-loving Americans, or perhaps souffle-loving Americans. Or vegans, who presumably would openly hate hamburgers.

See, I was going to make fun of it, but then I thought that this had to be a joke article. It had to be one of those jargon-fests that professors make up sometimes, in which they deploy the language and concepts of their discipline in service of a "serious critique" of some lightweight pop culture phenomenon. I didn't want to be the one who didn't get the joke. But as it turns out, Dr. Barker has been grinding this particular gear since last year and it's not a joke at all.

And I realized that there was no way to make more fun of this article than its existence already did -- my own mockery would be spitting in the ocean. In American coastal waters, of course, so as not to salivially colonize any folk dwelling anywhere else.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Tripling Down?

As the NBA quickly moves towards becoming the National Basket Association, many of its corporate partners are keeping solidarity with it. ESPN was mentioned the other day, and now Nike has bravely decided to hide all of the merchandise from the Houston Rockets in its mainland China stores. The offensive tweet that began the whole mess, of course, came from a Houston Rockets manager.

You remember Nike, of course, the corporation that bravely hired a guy who hadn't played a down of professional football in almost three years to be a spokesman, then rolled over and ditched an entire line of shoes for him because he'd heard the symbolic "Betsy Ross" flag on them was used by some white supremacists somewhere. They did this because their new spokesman was a man of character who stood by his values even when it cost him. If they were right then he ought to be disgusted with them now.

Fans at two NBA preseason games with small signs referencing Hong Kong and, in one case, the persecuted Uyghur minority, had them taken away at games in Washington, DC (you know, where the leaders of the free world go about their business) and Philadelphia (you know, where some of that freedom stuff got started).

The Rockets themselves, through a representative, clammed up when a CNN reporter asked superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook about the matter, saying "Basketball questions only." The most amusing part of the video is when the camera switches back to Harden and Westbrook after the reporter is cut off and gives up the mike, as they sit stone-faced. To its credit, the NBA says the team rep shouldn't have done that. Perhaps because Harden's already spoken his lines, via Twitter, and they don't want to risk Westbrook going off script. Steph Curry mimicked his coach's "I dunno?" shrug about the matter but did manage to laugh at President Trump's juvenile tweet mocking Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Understandable. Probably his fault anyway.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Missed It by That Much

At Astronomy Picture of the Day, we find that a project to take pictures of the Milky Way also caught a meteor blazing its way down to Earth. It makes for a cool picture and a reminder to be very glad that someone else took a picture of a flying rock buzzing past an airplane.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Enough Cowardice to Go Around

Plenty of people have taken the National Basketball Association to task for its craven groveling after the Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted support of pro-freedom protestors in Hong Kong. The league has shown that as necessary as a spine may be to playing the actual game of basketball, it is not necessary for managing the professional league of teams which do so.

Some NBA figures, such as Steve Kerr, have been singled out for special criticism. Kerr is quick to blast President Trump for his many failures but considers a regime currently imprisoning nearly an entire ethnic group a real head-scratcher to understand.

Disney-owned ESPN, in an effort to help out one of our nation's great sports, is being pretty quiet about the whole thing also. Or it could be that Disney doesn't want the dictatorship ruling China to close its movie market to Disney productions and turn off that sweet international box office cash flow.

Mitt Romney was mocked during the 2012 presidential campaign when he said that corporations were people, too. He meant that corporations were made up of the people they employed, but in this instance we find some that really are people. Gutless, greedy people.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Kids May Yet Be Alright

Those crazy millennials! When given the opportunity to have all of the keenest tech at their fingertips in settings that wow every visiting dad who can picture himself watching the game on them, they seem to want...books!

Alia Wong, writing at The Atlantic, recounts how students seem to lean towards libraries that do things libraries have always done: Provide access to information and the curation of that information so as to be able to find what they need to learn things and finish assignments. In fact, some of the surveys and an increasing pile of research suggest that paper books help those tasks better than do e-books and journals. Actually I think you could make an end run around the electronic journal thing if you looked something up and then wrote it down in a notebook, giving yourself the benefit of physical text and note-taking.

As a licensed middle-aged grump, I of course prefer libraries with books in them and think wholesale commitment to whizbangery is very likely an expensive and trendy boondoggle. At the college where I used to work, I recall that when the new business school building opened, the university president touted it as one of the most technologically advanced facilities in the state, if not nation. When I've been in that building since then the cutting edge tech of 2004 is either painfully outdated or flat-out gone. The whetstone necessary to keep that edge cost a lot more than he thought it would.

Turns out that while college textbooks and academic journals are ridiculously expensive, they're ridiculously expensive only once -- rather than every other year. Good job, meddling kids.

Friday, October 4, 2019


I'm of two minds about the latest issue of National Review, which has several stories highlighting the flaws of Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and of her ideas.

On the one hand, highlighting how wrong-headed Sen. Warren's much lauded plans are is a good idea. Demonstrating how clearly her ideas clash with reality is needed.

On the other hand, the last time the staff at NR decided to devote most of an issue towards explaining the flaws of a particular presidential candidate was in January of 2016. And it didn't work out so well.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Breaking the Deal

One of the only things that kept many people sane during the horrors of the 2016 presidential campaign was the knowledge that though both of the major party candidates were awful, one of them was going to lose and go away, leaving us afflicted by just half of the awfulness of the campaign season itself. Even if you voted for a third party candidate (raises hand) you knew that only one of the pair of rough beasts slouching toward Pennsylvania Avenue could win and you would be relieved of the other.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not lived up to her part of that agreement, insofar as she has not only not gone away, she has continued to tell the country that she really won in 2016. Or she would have except for factors beyond her control, such as that Wisconsin-shaped blind spot on her campaign map. Although she claims it was because she was too serious or something. While I have some sympathy -- I also would find it hard to believe that people would rather put up with Donald Trump than put up with me -- it's time she took her medicine and went away.

Some folks have suggested that this latest book tour is a way of dipping that toe in the 2020 waters to see if she could maybe give it a third try. I think even Hillary Clinton has enough political savvy to know that's not possible. Although by pretending she really won, she is positioning herself as an ideal running mate to the surging Elizabeth Warrren. We would have a presidential candidate who used to pretend she was Native American accompanied by a woman who still pretends she won the 2016 election.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

How We Focus

In this article at Quanta, Jordana Cepelewicz describes research done into the brain that suggests a different idea about how we concentrate on something when we are trying to pay attention to it.

One model for the processes by which the brain pays attention to something has been the idea that it sort of shines a spotlight on whatever matter is under consideration. But, Cepelewicz says, researchers have discovered that a more accurate description of brain activity during this time might be more along the lines of screening out distractions rather than illuminating the target subject or idea. That sounds pretty plausible, since almost all of us have had the experience in which we turn the car radio down when we search for a new street or particular house number. We don't really see any better when the audio input is reduced, but we do have fewer distractions and we are more likely to see the sought-after locator.

This could also explain more than 95 percent of the air that comes out of the mouths of politicians, government workers and bureaucrats. Since they often very much wish that we would not know what they're doing -- or that they're not really doing anything -- they will say many things, often forcefully, which our brain has to sort through in order to find the one that matters. When they throw enough verbiage into the air, we don't figure out how badly they screwed up or failed until long after it's too late to take any reasonable action about it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Funny Stuff?

In 2018 Dave Chappelle did a pair of comedy specials in which he commented -- not particularly sensitively -- on some of the allegations against comedian Louis C.K., as well as the way that transgender people confused him. He was immediately targeted by people who thought he went too far. Many folks so targeted apologized profusely for their transgressions, but Chappelle chose a different path.

The end result of that path was Sticks and Stones, his 2019 special in which he doubles down on some of the same kinds of jokes that got him in trouble before as well as some commentary on what that kind of mindset can do to stand-up comedy. Chappelle weaves his usual observations about race and class in and around the, but in many cases is clearly targeting "wokeness" and some of its weirder ramifications.

Sticks and Stones is a hit and miss outing compared to some of Chappelle's earlier material, although the hits are some of the funnier bits he's ever done. His take on the Jussie Smollett matter from earlier this year and recounting some of the "discussions" he had with the Standards and Practices department while doing his early Aughts Chappelle's Show stand out. One of the things that has helped him since his earliest days are the times when he gets tickled enough at his own jokes that he has to stop and crack up. It doesn't really rise to the level of "breaking character," since at this point Chappelle does his routines pretty much as is, but it helps him show that he can laugh at himself just as much as he can anyone else. That willingness to stand in front of the target, so to speak, helps push most of his material over the finish line to get what a comic most wants: A room of people laughing together at the weird stuff that makes us all pretty funny when you think about it.
Whitney Cummings took a little time off after her most recent full-time gig -- a lead writer on the revivial of Roseanne in 2018. When the star tweeted racially offensive jokes, Cummings quit the show, which was later retooled without namesake Roseanne Barr. Cummings came back to the stage with a tour and a 2019 Netflix comedy special, Can I Touch It?

She opens with a funny take on how recent discussions and highlighting of sexual harassment may not have fully gotten through to men -- who seem to better understand how to not bother a working service dog than a co-worker -- and continues through some of the more interesting minefields that lie in the land of relationships between the sexes. Now in her late '30s, Cummings has developed a maturity that lets her take aim at the immaturity she sometimes finds among men in the same age range -- she's a grown woman and has little patience for ungrown men who ought to be, well, grown.

Cummings devotes a major chunk of the show to a routine about the development of "sex robots," or animatronic characters that can include a large number of randomized responses in conversation and other activity. The highlight is her debut of a robot modeled on her as she describes the process by which it was created -- and made into an exact likeness. The segment is funny but not quite as funny as she might have wanted it to be and could probably do with about five fewer minutes in order to weed out some of the more "meh" material. Overall, though, the show is a better than average outing and a nice return for a comedienne who may have felt more than a little blindsided by the hurricane of crazy called "Roseanne Barr."
The high volume of comedy specials from Netflix -- because they're generally inexpensive and don't take too many resources to produce and release -- has led some people to suggest that the quality level of the product is going to suffer.

Appearing for the "pro" side of that argument is Nikki Glaser. Glaser has hosted a number of podcasts and cable shows and thanks to the folks in Los Gatos now has her first comedy special, Bangin'. Glaser's appearances on the late night shows have been moderately amusing but they're light-years ahead of the four-smiles-per-hour barrage of unfunny crassness of Bangin'. Skip it.