Friday, February 29, 2008

A muddy airport of linguistics

Important news from The Onion: Idiom Shortage Leaves Nation All Sewed Up In Horse Pies

It's a tough situation, but this the price we pay for having had Dan Rather cover so many elections over the years. If he was still around for this race, our idiom deficit would be jumping like a one-legged iceberg.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Comedy Is War

Although I've only watched the Jimmy Kimmel Show three times, that was enough for me to be familiar with his running joke about bumping Matt Damon. I fully enjoyed this hilarious "revenge" video he made with Jimmy's girlfriend Sarah Silverman:

That video was funny and hugely popular, which called out for a response. I was not surprised to see this video with Jimmy and Ben Affleck come out, but I wasn't expecting them to raise the bar this high:

I can only hope that they will continue to spur each other on to produce equally brilliant counter-attacks, though I don't know what anyone could do that would top this one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The great American pastime- watching famous people do dumb things!

I don't watch television or read the celebrity magazines, but that hasn't saved me from developing a knowledge of tabloid culture.

Yesterday I had the odd experience of having a writing tutoring session with Heidi Montag's brother, which was especially bizarre because a character sketch of his sister was a part of the descriptive essay he was working on.

It's disconcerting to hear a brother's glowing description of the sister he admires when you already have a clear mental picture of that same person as a vapid, reality-television quasi-celebrity with big fake breasts and a horrible music video. It's probably a good thing to be reminded that even the most unpleasant public figures can still have families who love them.

* * *

In a similar vein, Lindsay Lohan has taken the lead in poor decision-making with her brilliant decision to recreate a nude Marilyn Monroe photo shoot in New York Magazine. It is pretty much a given that to become a movie star or other major celebrity, one must possess an intense desire for attention, and Lohan is one of several celebs who clearly moved from intense to pathological.

I am firmly in favor of nudity that comes from a healthy attitude about sex and confidence about ones body, but it is much less appealing when it's a desperate cry for attention. It also doesn't help that, even though I'm a breast man who finds freckles oddly alluring, she looks only mildly attractive because of how poorly she has treated her body over the last few years.

* * *

I came across this funny video a couple days ago of a man getting rejected after making the foolish decision to propose at half-time of an NBA game, and before I got around to posting it here, I sent a message about it to ESPN's Bill Simmons, who included it in his weekly links page today (towards the bottom of the page). The best part of the video is Tracy McGrady's amused reaction to it as he takes the court to start the second half.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Obama gets fouled and scores anyway

Immediately after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign started saying that nothing would be decided until March 4th, and it looks like that was the right strategy for managing expectations now that Obama has reeled off a string of ten impressive victories.

The result in Wisconsin makes it clear that he can win blue-collar workers, and it also serves as a clear response that the negative political games of the last few days are not going to be effective. The whole plagiarism claim was ridiculous even as the desperate attack of a floundering campaign, and while it doesn't seem to have made much impact on the voters at all, it is interesting to see how dismissive the media pundits have been.

Now the question remains whether Hillary will recognize the failure of going negative, or if she will conclude that the problem was that she didn't attack fiercely enough. I really hope it isn't the latter, because even though that would probably sink her campaign for good, having an influential member of the party like her slagging off the eventual nominee would only be good for McCain.

This video isn't about Obama, but it does present a rare instance of an influential sports icon displaying genuine conviction about substantive political issues. Charles Barkley's playing career ended before I had developed much of an interest in basketball, and I can't say that I'm a fan of his work as an analyst of the game, but his willingness to call out the hypocrisy of the religious right and declare his support of equal marriage rights and women's reproductive rights has made me a huge fan.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Breathing room

The last few days have been quite busy and stressful, with back-to-back presentations in both of my grad school classes. I think they both went well, and now I'll be catching up on the last few days.

I had the odd feeling of having missed a lot when I heard the news this morning about Castro stepping down (by letter) and Kosovo declaring its independence (and having it recognized by the US and the major EU countries). The news from Cuba has a lot of symbolic significance, but considering that the transfer of power actually took place a year and half ago, it doesn't look like much will change. It would be nice to be able to legally visit Havana in the near future, but I won't hold my breath.

The situation in Kosovo looks much more complicated than it might seem, and I hope that we don't end up with a situation in which Russia decides to flex its muscles while the US is distracted by the election. It does strike me as very interesting that this most recent result of Milosovic's attempts to create a strong nationalist Serbia out of Yugoslavia is that an independent Kosovo has received immediate international recognition that would have been unthinkable if they'd made the same declaration twenty years ago.

* * *

When I saw this story in the New York Times about the use a semicolon in a subway placard, my initial reaction was to be pleased that it was used well in such an unexpected situation, but I ended up feeling discouraged that it became such a big deal. I also can't help feeling dubious when the story makes the following claim without providing any examples:
People have lost fortunes and even been put to death because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers.
I'd rather have a newspaper screw up a semicolon than to make huge unsupported claims about people being executed because of a punctuation mark.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Things suddenly get uncomfortably close

I was having dinner in a bar and watching some college basketball last night when they switched over to the breaking news about the shooting at Northern Illinois University. At the time I registered it as another tragic event in the numbing litany of death and destruction that human beings are constantly inflicting on each other, but that detached emotional response was shattered this afternoon.

I've been working to reactivate the chapter of the English honor society Sigma Tau Delta here at DU, and this afternoon I was meeting with the treasurer to open a checking account for the chapter. As is often the case with that sort of seemingly simple task, we hit a roadblock when they needed a faxed confirmation from the society's central office. It should have been a simple enough thing to call them up and have them fax it over, but no one answered the phone when we called. It seemed odd, but we left a message and then tried to continue preparing to open the account. We got everything else in order, and they hadn't called back, so we were about to try again when I had a flash of realization.

As you may have already guessed, the central office of Sigma Tau Delta is in the English department at Northern Illinois University, which I'd known all along, but it wasn't until that moment that I put two and two together. The realization that the people suffering on television last night were the same ones I was talking to on the phone just a couple days ago was an unexpected shock. All of a sudden what had been a distant tragedy was brought uncomfortably close.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shmashmentine's Day

Mega-kudos to Jess for having the radical good taste to rock my mailbox with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles card, and for this site that expresses my general feelings about February 14th with things like this:

It's funny to think that all of the atrocities against poetry that are committed on this day can be traced back to Chaucer. If it weren't for him, this day's saint would be just another Roman Catholic bishop who died a horrible death. Nothing says martyrdom like lingerie and chocolates!

In the same vein of bitterness, I really like this video that I found a couple days ago:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Sweeps the Potomac

Barack Obama's win in the Potomac Primaries is impressive, giving him eight victories in a row, but the bigger news is that he won among those who were supposed to belong to Hillary. Regardless of what the pundits say, the whole momentum factor remains minor because it takes effect when voters perceive that they would be throwing their votes away if they went against the momentum, and at this stage there's no way that Clinton supporters are going to conclude that she's a lost cause. Barring an a reversal in Wisconsin or Hawaii, Barack will be heading into the contests on March 4th (Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island) with a substantial delegate lead and victories in half of the states in the nation. So far, Huckabee has delayed McCain's nomination on the Republican side, but McCain's narrow victories in today's primaries will probably hasten Huckabee's withdrawal. Hopefully Obama can win both Ohio (looking increasingly plausible) and Texas (still doubtful, but winning among Latinos in Virginia gives hope), which would allow him to get the full force of the party behind him and start preparing for the general election.

* * *

I also came across a delightfully geeky website this evening. If you've ever wondered how a Star Destroyer and the Enterprise would look next to each other (or the relative sizes of any other science-fiction vehicles), this site has the answers. It's particularly nifty that he provides some real-world examples too. I like that Serenity is almost as big as a 747, and comparing things to the Empire State Building is far more fun than you'd think...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Driving in the middle of a two-way street

As if our foreign policy wasn't dysfunctional enough already, the Bush Administration is trying to use visa-free travel to the United States to bludgeon the European Union into accepting new "security" measures. It's one thing when American citizens are frightened enough to exchange their privacy for the illusion of security, but pitting the EU member-states against each other in order to extract their citizens' personal information (including details about people who aren't even entering the US) is a good way to add to the already impressive quantity of ill-will that exists towards the United States.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Science gets head-butted

One of the highlights of my visit to New York was the American Museum of Natural History, which was amazing for both its size and the quality of its collections. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of wandering through the Natural History Museum here in Denver (recently renamed the Denver Museum of Nature & Science), and my experience in New York was quite similar but on a much larger scale.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten into the habit of carrying a notebook with me when I go to museums, and I find that in addition to the actual items on display, the informational panels describing them are often a rich source of inspiration for my own writing. As I was exploring the dinosaurs and occasionally noting little gems of interest, I came across something that reminded me just far-reaching the conservative war on science has become.
It was a standard informational panel explaining the different theories about how pachycephalosaurs might have used their thick skull-caps, starting with the theory that they would have used them to establish dominance by butting heads like bighorn sheep, followed by an explanation that more recent research had indicated that their neck vertebra were too fragile for them to survive head-to-head combat and that they may instead have established dominance by butting a rival in the flanks. What saddened me was that underneath that information there was added placard reminding people in the familiar language of the anti-evolution movement that we cannot be sure about anything when it comes to extinct animals because those theories cannot be tested. It's sad enough that there are people who cannot tolerate scientific progress if it might threaten their fragile beliefs, but to see that sort of language creeping into such an important scientific institution raises frightening questions about the place of intellectual development in this country.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Germany and Prague via Broadway

During my New York trip I set aside all of Saturday afternoon and evening for Broadway shows. I had several shows that I was interested in seeing, so I made my decision based on the availability of cheap student tickets, and I ended up get tickets to a matinée of Spring Awakening and an evening show of Rock 'n' Roll. Although I hadn't planned it that way, it worked out perfectly to give me a taste of both sides of the spectrum, with Spring Awakening representing the enthusiastic energy of the musical and Rock 'n' Roll was a thought-provoking drama.

Although it was clearly a Broadway musical, one of the things that I really enjoyed about Spring Awakening was that it did make some ambitious and unexpected choices. Using rock music to express the angst of 19th century German teenagers might have seemed painfully anachronistic, but the music helped the show to tap into the highs and lows of adolescence in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to quite readily. My primary impression of the show was its incredible energy. The actors had a very believable youthful enthusiasm, and the show did a great job of presenting the difficulty of achieving a balanced sense of self when your whole world is being distorted by the changes of puberty.

Unfortunately, the show's energy could not make up for the fact that all of the music meant there wasn't enough time to give significant psychological depth to the characters. I'm not familiar with the play on which it is based, but I suspect that the broad strokes are the result of trying to translate the emotional depth of a play into the medium of a musical. In spite of its weaknesses, Spring Awakening had more than enough passion and vitality to keep me thoroughly engaged and entertained.

Rock 'n' Roll had a very different feel, which makes sense considering that it came to New York from London and still has most of the original West-End cast. As I have learned to expect from a Tom Stoppard play, it was thought-provoking and had real heft, but it also had an emotional side to balance the intellectual discussions of the mind, music, and communism. Unfortunately, it also felt like a play more suited to a British rather than American audience, and I could tell that some of the audience members were almost angry at the fact that communism was being discussed by sympathetic characters who were not painting it as an ideology of pure evil.

My perception may have been skewed by the fact that on this night I had the misfortune to be in the most poorly behaved audience I have ever seen. People were getting up and trying to move to better seats during much of the first act, in some cases not even waiting for a scene break to do so, and at one point a cell phone started ringing and just kept ringing until after about the third or fourth ring, the actors simply paused the action, at which point the offender finally realized what a disruption it was and silenced it. It was real shame to have such an awful audience, because the play itself was remarkable in its subtlety and the depth of its passionate characters.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Caucusing for Obama

It was an intense experience this evening when I headed into the local elementary school to caucus for Obama with my mother in tow. I had a bit of preliminary work to do during dinner when she revealed that she had some doubts about Obama's healthcare plan and was considering caucusing for Hillary. She said that as a doctor she is a "single-issue voter" with respect to healthcare, but I talked to her over dinner about the fact that both candidates share the same goal of making sure that everyone has access to quality healthcare, and I reminded her of our past discussions about the divisiveness that has soured so much of American politics and Obama's unique ability to inspire people.

The school was packed, and when we finally figured out which room to go to for our precinct, the little elementary-school library was packed. After we got signed in, I led my mother over to the other Obama supporters, and she came willingly. She still hadn't told me for sure that she was going to caucus for Obama, but I think that seeing the huge majority of Obama supporters in the room dispelled whatever lingering doubts she may have had.

The final numbers for our precinct came out to 99 for Obama and 37 for Hillary, and the mood in the room was very positive on both sides, even though the process moved slowly because there were so many people. The delegate numbers came out to seven for Obama and three for Hillary, and without any prior planning, I decided to put my name forward as a possible delegate for Obama at the county convention. There were quite a few other people interested, and to narrow it down the Obama precinct captain asked if anyone would be willing to be an alternate instead. I could see that some of the people were really keen on being delegates, so I took up that offer, and I'm currently one of the seven alternates. I'm glad to be involved even in that little way (and who knows, I might get called to replace one of the delegates), and it was hugely encouraging to see the physical manifestation of the growing support for Obama.

The results for the state of Colorado indicate that Obama across the state by a huge margin, and I feel very proud of my state for so heartily supporting his message of hope.

Interesting New Poet

Because I didn't have internet access during my trip, I will continue to post thoughts and things from AWP and visiting New York as time allows over the course of the week. Here is the first:

At the AWP conference I attended a panel on translation that was very interesting, and one of the panelists was a poet whose work really resonated with me. Hélène Cardona is one of those gifted people who are able to do anything and everything. She talked about translating and how she uses it in her creative process, and she read briefly from her recently published first book, The Astonished Universe, a bilingual book with versions of the poems in both French and English, and the poems she read were fantastic. Listening to her read a poem in English and then in French highlighted for me the difference in how I experience poetry. The sound of the poem as she was reading it in French was a much more visceral experience for me than in English, and I think that the sublime feeling of losing myself in the language is harder to find in English because I have studied it so intensely. My knowledge has given me a depth of understanding that makes up for the loss of that sort of naive wonder, but having the French and English together allowed me to get the best of both worlds.