Thursday, December 18, 2008

Adventures With Bink

It turns out that a dog who wants to travel in the passenger section of an airplane needs a clean bill of health from a vet within ten days prior of the trip. We (and by "we" I mean "my wife") have decided to take the Bink home for Christmas. So this morning, I took Bink to the vet.

Usually my wife handles this kind of thing, both because she's more qualified, and less afraid. But today, after working in the early morning on a poem about lust, women's butts, and Aristotle (really) I loaded an unsuspecting dog into his carrying case (a black duffel bag with various points of access, many air holes, and a shoulder strap), bought him out to the car, and set out for the other side of town.

Getting to our old vet from our new house takes at least thirty minutes and involves a number of freeways. If you're a small dog, this means carsickness and that means vomiting. Sure enough, within the first ten minutes the high plaintive squeals of indignation and grouchiness had given way to the stunned silence of intense motion sickness. By the time we'd reached the vet, there was vomit on the bottom of the duffel bag and on the hair around Bink's mouth. He was shivering uncontrollably, his heart was beating like someone on speed, and his general demeanor was one of stunned terror.

After the appointment itself--a large part of which consisted of me trying unsuccessfully to wipe vomit off a dog's mouth with a wet paper towel--we got back in the car. This time the whimpering ended within minutes. The silence that followed was a different silence--a better silence. It sounded not like someone who had just thrown up, but like someone who has started to acclimate themselves to living for short stretches in a duffel bag. (A silence I think we all know.)

Unfortunately, I had to brake suddenly on the street near my house and the duffel bag tipped over. Upon removal, both Bink and bag displayed not only a fresh layer of vomit but an accumulation of something that looked dismayingly like urine. (I didn't investigate too closely.) The duffel bag got hosed down. The Bink was allowed to wander around the house for Free Play. And then, I drugged him.

Really. Because he's going to be on airplane, in the same duffel bag as above, for about four hours, we've decided for the sake of everyone involved to take the advice of past travelers and sedate him with Benadryl. The hope is that this will entail less whimpering, vomiting, and overall misery. Today marked the first test run of operation "BinkCalm." It involved one confused husband, a small pipette of Benadryl (previously prepared by his wife) and a more or less willing dog. (Luckily for us--at least some of the time--the Bink will pretty much eat anything).

The Bink, at this moment, is sleeping. I also would like to be sleeping, but I must go online and play poker, and try to win some money to pay for the Bink's vet bill, duffel bag, and plane ticket. Still, there's no doubt--his day was far worse than mine. Although, by now he's probably totally forgotten all of it.

Fun times. Fun times.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Pt III

This week's selection is from A Farewell to Arms, by Theophile de Gautier. Wait, no. That's not who wrote A Farewell to Arms at all. Never mind.

John and I are talking about the first four chapters, a section in which our hero, Frederic Henry, first describes the general course of the Italian offensive against Austria during World War I and then telescopes down to a summary of his own situation. It's a strange beginning, I think, because within the first four chapters we jump forward in time twice. We start with "the late summer of that year." Then, in Chapter Two, we are on "that next year." Chapter Three then opens with the hero returning from a leave for vacation, some months later. And this is all in five pages. So what I wonder is: why bother? Why not just start with Chapter III, with the hero back from his vacation. What do we need to establish in the first and second chapter?

The second chapter sets up the priest--a character whose importance is suggested later in this teasing phrase: "He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later." When I read this I immediately wanted to reread the whole book, because somewhere in here, I know, is a description of what the priest knows. Something to do with faith, and courage, probably.

But the first chapter does nothing, really, except set the tone. Its opening paragraph is among Hemingway's most famous, epitomizing the Hemingway style. It's all simple sentences and large, non-specific nouns, and the verbs are all weak (forms of 'to be' mostly.) For many people, this is what to love in Hemingway. What I ended up liking more, though, on reading this selection was, of all things, his sense of humor. We generally don't think of Hemingway as a funny writer, but a lot of the dialogue in A Farewell to Arms--especially the exchanges between the army officers--really shines. He's very good on contrasting the formality and ritual of official positions with the pride and ego and fear of the people holding those positions--the emotion that overruns the form.

There's a scene much later in the book that shows this perfectly. Frederic has just spent twelve straight hours fleeing in a boat from Italy to Switzerland. He's exhausted and stressed and in danger of being arrested for deserting the war. When the Swiss customs officials pick him up, he tells them he's come to Switzerland to experience "winter sport." The officials know he's lying, but instead of harassing him they immediately break out into an argument about which town in Switzerland offers the best opportunities for winter sport. The entire exchange is too long to replicate, but the opening is funny enough:
"[We would like to go to] Montreux."
"It's a very nice place," the official said. "I am sure you would like it very much here at Locarno. Locarno is a very attractive place."
"We would like some place where there is winter sport."
"There is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I beg your pardon," the other official said. "I come from Montreux. There is certainly winter sport on the Montreux Oberland Railway. It would be false for you to deny that."
"I do not deny that. I simply said there is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I question that," the other official said. "I question that statement."
"I hold to that statement."

The humor here is in the contrast between the intense dignity of these men--(dignity is HUGE with Hemingway. For him, I think it's a species of courage, and there's no virute he more admires. Think of the two old men in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place.")--and the pettiness of their provicincial biases. It's not funny in a laugh-out-loud, P.G. Wodehouse sort of way, but I think the levity of these scenes give the drama--maybe the melodrama--of the other parts of the book more impact. It was a surprise to me to see the variety of tones that Hemingway is capable of using. By the later books, his voices ossifies and everything is about courage and impossible odds and doomed heroism. But here, all that is tempered; there's a restraint. It's really a great book to read; I started on the first four chapters and got halfway through the book before I put it down.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


For the Two Readers Project this week, John chose an essay from Dave Hickey's seminal book of art and cultural criticism, Air Guitar.

A lot of Hickey's essays start out with a personal reminiscence, and this one's no exception. In this case, the essay begins with Hickey recalling his work writing a dissertation towards a PhD in Literature and Linguistics at the University of Texas in the mid-60's. "By September of 1967," he writes, "I had the project pretty much nailed, and only then, unfortunately, did its true eccentricity begin to dawn on me--only then did I begin to realize that there was no support anywhere in the academic world for what I was doing, nor was there any inkling that such support might be forthcoming."

He considers what will happen when his dissertation is reviewed by the committee: "The two post-structuralists, confronted with the empiricism of my practice, would almost certainly fling themselves upon the barricades. The literary humanist, faced with the prospect of calculus, would go catatonic; and the two linguistics wonks, who spent their summers taping Hopis and thought Gertrude Stein was something you drank beer out of, would bitch and moan about my "unscientific" literary parameters and probably resign from the committee."

Deciding the whole thing sounds like a "bad bet", he decides--on a whim, it seems like--to become an art dealer. "That night I called up all my artist pals and told them I was going to become an art dealer. They all said, 'Great!' Within the next two weeks, I had borrowed ten grand from a local banker who hung out in rock-and-roll bars, rented a space downstairs from a lawyer who defended drug offenders, had some stationary printed up by an outlaw printer in south Austin, and got a tax number from the State Comptroller."

So far it's all been pretty much recollection (leavened, as always, with both deep generosity and mordant cynicism). But soon--and this is usual with Hickey--the personal stuff becomes an occasion for something more intense. As an art dealer, Hickey watches all sorts of everyday, "uneducated" (at least artistically) folks come into his gallery. His conclusion is one of the many great moments in the piece:
Regarding the degradation of trying to sell objects to people who know nothing about art, I can only assure you that everyone in this culture understands the freedom and permission of art's mandate. To put it simply: Art ain't rocket science, and beyond a proclivity to respond and permission to do so, there are no prerequisites for looking at it. This is the first thing I learned as an art dealer, because everyone who came into my little store--the paper boy, the mailman, the plumber, the tourists, the hippies, and the suburban matrons--"understood" what was going on, even when they did not approve.
The final third of the essay (and I should note that even though I'm quoting liberally here, I'm leaving out a significant amount of really great writing) considers the way art is valued. He draws a parallel between art and money (currency): both are investments of faith and "when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven't bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another." It's a long, and characteristically thought-provoking discussion, which then goes on to consider the ways certain artists and paintings rise in value in relation to the institutions of the art world (dealers, museums, galleries) which, like the Federal Reserve, contribute, by virtue of THEIR investments to the art or artist in question, added value.
The point, however, is that the issuing institution or individual can never guarantee the value of art or money sent forth into the world. It must be sustained though investments by complex constituencies of individuals, public institutions, and private corporations. The government may say a dollar is worth a dollar. Fiduciary investment tells us it's worth thirty-five cents. The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can help maintain Wanda's work in public esteem.
As you can probably gather, I've always loved Hickey's work, and this essay's no exception. There's a lot to admire, but if I had to chose a single virtue it would be his approachability, how lightly he wears his erudition (and the man, as any sustained contact with his writing will show, is seriously smart). Because he never talks down to you--because he always assumes you understand exactly what he's saying (and we do!--because of how well he writes) he makes you feel smart. In what may be his best essay, he writes with admiration about the paintings of Norman Rockwell. It's a prototypical Hickey essay; Rockwell is a great painter for Hickey because he disguises how hard he works. His paintings are not afraid to give the viewer pleasure but they do so (at least according to Hickey) without insulting his intelligence. They "rhyme." The same can be said of Hickey's writing; it doesn't scruple to give the reader pleasure. It's funny, it's moving, and it's humble. I also think that most of it, insofar as the word can be used when talking about criticism, is right.

So. Dave Hickey. Air Guitar. Read it. I mean, come on. The opening quote is by Keith Richards. "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem." Funny, yes. But also, deeper than it seems.

PS: There's an artist around today whose work consists of hand-painted reproductions of American paper currency. Does anyone know who this is? They're supposed to be so accurate that he's occasionally arrested for counterfeiting. This essay reminded me of him.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The New House

As of Friday, we have moved in to the new place. The floors, which we've paid to have sanded and refinished, are coated in a fine layer of silt despite my constant mopping. The backyard has standing puddles in it (the man who has been doing the gardening while no one lived here seemed to be going for a Florida Everglades-type feel). Our entire dining room is filled with boxes. Our bathroom has no central light, so we've had to import a desk lamp, which now totters on the small counter between shower and sink, shadeless. The new cable box hums so loudly that you can't carry on a conversation if you're sitting next to it. Every shutter from every single one of our windows is currently lying in our garage, ready to be given a new coat of paint. (The painter--who is coming more and more to resemble Elton from Murphy Brown-- promised us he would be done last Tuesday). And whenever any faucet or toilet is activated, the entire house shakes, and a noise roughly akin to that of an army of angry gnomes toiling with jackhammers to demolish the foundation, issues forth. This FREAKS OUT the dog who, having been uprooted from a quiet, cosy carpeted nook in a place he knew to a large, loud, linoleum-covered kitchen in a place he does not, is already freaked out almost beyond what he can bear. (He's refused to eat or drink for the last twenty-four straight hours and spends most of his time yowling and scratching at the kitchen door.) That means that going to the bathroom late at night is a bad idea because it will wake him up, freak him out, and precipitate a half-hour of door banging from the kitchen which is highly injurious to calm, anxiety-free sleep.

Still. I own a home. Yes!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Story Club, Pt. I

Selection I: Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”

My friend John and I have decided to start what amounts to a very small reading club. Each week one of us will chose a story or short prose selection. We’ll both read it, and the next week post our thoughts. The stories will be chosen more or less at random; the intention is not to pick things near and dear to both of our arts so much as exercise our critical muscles. Since we’ll also post the stories we’re going to be reading on our blog in advance, anyone else who wants to contribute may do so. And if there are any stories or prose selections that you want to read, send them in, and we’ll do so.

This week’s story is “The Chain.” It’s from Tobias Wolff’s collection The Night In Question.

The story opens with a man and the daughter playing outside. A large dog from a nearby house runs towards the man’s daughter, aiming, it seems, to hurt her. The dog seizes the girl by the shoulder, shaking her from side to side. The man manages to prevent serious bodily harm being done to his daughter by biting the dog through the ear.

Back home, the man considers taking action against the dog’s owners, but is told he can’t; despite almost killing the girl, the dog was in fact tethered to a chain (just a very long one). The man's cousin, hearing this, volunteers to kill the dog and the man eventually agrees. The act sets in motion a chain of interactions which eventually lead to a death.

* * *

I thought the best parts of “The Chain” were in the section leading up to the murder of the dog. Once the dog is killed, the story starts to sag under the weight of its rather mundane ideas. (A chain connects us all. One act ramifies outward in unforeseen ways. If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a wombat in Peru gets sick....) The story reminded me, in an odd way, of Pulp Fiction, or Go—some movie in which a number of disparate characters are all implicated because of things the other one’s do. Except this is not as good.

There were a few nice moments:

-The semicolon (instead of the word ‘but’) in this sentence: “He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”

-“He knew it was trite to marvel at the way time could stretch and stall.”

- A small technical thing I noticed and will probably steal: the ‘open dialogue technique’ used at the start. After the opening dog attack scene, the protagonist describes what’s happened. But for two paragraphs, we, the reader, have no idea who he’s talking to.

-I loved the description of his cousin: “his cousin had an exacting irritable sense of justice, and a ready store of loyal outrage that Gold had drawn on since they were boys.” That may be the best sentence in the whole story: “an exacting irritable sense of justice” perfectly captures a certain type of person.

-The small detail, in the conversation between Gold and his cousin, when the cousin, “shoved the naugahyde ottoman with his foot until it was facing Gold, then sat on it and leaned forward, so close their knees were touching.” Great sentence, great moment. Also, Gold has naugahyde, not real leather—that’s how it should be.

-To build drama, the cousin refuses to “poison or glass....” (sic?) the dog because “that’s chickenshit. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.” I had problems with this: I thought it was done because the writer wanted it that way, not because it was true. It seems like a small lie to me. If for some reason I had to kill a neighbor’s dog, poison seems like by far the best way. And I don’t know that anyone would care that much about being thought a coward in that context; killing someone’s pet is already incredibly cowardly.

-The buildup to Gold deciding to have his cousin kill the dog.... First, the casual anti-Semitisim at his work. Then his own sense of being passive, his worry that the anti-Semitic stereotypes which trap (chain) him are, in some way, accurate. The fistfight he watches outside his store. The visit to the dog owner’s neighborhood, where he encounters their wealth as a barrier, protecting them from justice. (“The deep thunk of the brass knocker against the great green door, the glittering chandelier in the foyer, the Cinderella sweep of the staircase with its monumental newel post and gleaming rail—all this would tell you that the law was among friends here.”)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Enigma Lichens

This is from "The Spider Man and Other Stories" a review in the Dec 4 New York Review of Books.  The book being reviewed is Dry Storeroom I: The Secret Life of The Natural History Museum.  It's about...uhm...the secret life of a Natural History Museum (the British one in this case).
Lichens fungi and algae are referred to as cryptogams, which literally means "hidden marriage"--a reference to their means of reproduction, which long remained a mystery to botanists.  During World War II, a misunderstanding about the meaning of this term led to a breakthrough of the greatest military importance.  Geoffrey Tandy was the museum's "seaweed man."  He only ever published two scientific papers, a lack of productivity that seems to have been owing to a hidden marriage of his own, for Tandy shouldered the burden of running two families in tandem.

His great moment came when a functionary in the Ministry of War became confused between cryptogamists and cryptographers, and recruited Tandy to the British center for signals intelligence at Bletchley Park, where some of the world's brightest minds were working on cracking the German Enigma Code.  During Tandy's stay at Bletchey Park several sodden notebooks holding vital clues to the German code were recovered from sunken U-boats, but they seemed damaged beyond recovery.  Tandy, however, knew exactly what to do, for the problem was not so different from preserving marine algae.  Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy dried the sodden pages and made them readable, an important contribution to deciphering the Enigma Code.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thoughts On Remodeling

- Home Depot and Lowe's are not, as I had once assumed, more or less the same.  Home Depot is far inferior.  Don't go there, unless you want faucet fixtures that cost 40.00$ more than they should, look terrible, and only work with a certain brand of six-hole sinks manufactured exclusively in Slovenia.

-Instructions for coming up with name for shade of paint: take any noun.  Take any second noun (preferably one that evokes nature) or adjective with non-negative connotation.  Combine.  You have now created the name of a shade of paint.  Sierra frost.  Tuscon villa.  Spring pumpkin.  Tomato stockcar.  All are paint names, somewhere.  I promise you.

-"Trim" refers to floorboards and chair rails.  Oh, and door frames.  Maybe window frames too.  I think it's also a kind of sparrow.  I don't know.  But people like to talk about it.  Generally when they do just nod.  Agree that it should probably be white.

-I think it can also refer to a body shape?

-Toilets are rated according to statistics.  Flush power.  Flush strength.  Slugging percentage--those are the main ones.  It's kind of cool.  

-While it may, in theory, be possible to purchase a toilet for under $100, you should not do so.  Unless, that is, you want some toilet who will never even get past AAA ball.

-We have two new toilets--a Brad Ausmus level toilet, and, for our starting rotation (main bathroom), an Andy Petitte level toilet.  (The Pettite of three years ago, say).  We passed on the Tim Lincecum/Manny Ramirez level ones.  Too pricey.  And why spend all that money on one superstar?  As the Devil Rays showed, it's balance and depth at all positions that wins championships.

-Total number of miles driven between our apartment, our house, Lowe's and Home Depot in last week: 200.  

-Walt Disney makes its own line of paint.  I don't know what to think about that.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Onion Calls The Presidential Race

Kobe Bryant Scores 25 in Holy Shit We Elected A Black President

So funny.  Here's a sample:
....Lakers forward Lamar Odom also chipped in with 16 points and eight boards in the historic 349-162 Electoral College victory over the slumping Clippers, who are clearly missing the presence of former power forward Elton Brand—a Democrat, let alone a black Democrat, winning Indiana for the first time in 44 years? Florida? Ohio? Maybe even North goddamned Carolina? Are you fucking kidding? Is it absolutely confirmed that he won Virginia? Virginia, for crying out loud. Fucking crazy is what that is.
The 2008 league MVP was solid on the defensive end of the court as well, holding Clippers guard Baron Davis to just 12 points and when they called Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida for Obama, basically ensuring victory, that was a moment in which all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or party affiliation had to stand back and say, "Holy shit, this is actually going to happen. Holy shit.... Holy shit. Holy shit! Holy shit!"

A Big Pot, A Big Bluff

I play poker online for about an hour a day.  Mostly I play low-stakes hold'em: the games are soft, and it's a relatively painless way of generating some extra income.  It's also incredibly boring.  Low stakes players don't fold much, and you have to hold hands to win pots.  To alleviate the tedium, I've started to mix in a few tables of Pot Limit Omaha.  I used to play a lot of Omaha, but the style I used at the time was conservative to the point of timid.  What I'm doing now yields higher profits, but exposes me to much greater swings of capital.  It involves a lot more bluffing, and a lot more preflop raising.  The result is that the people I play with tend to view me as a loose cannon, and give me action.  Sometimes that's good; when I get big hands, I get paid off.  The problem is that it exposes me to a fair number of bluffs.  People know I often don't have the hands I represent and think they can push me out of pots by big bets.  When I don't have anything at all, folding's no problem.  It's when I have good but not GREAT hands that things get dicey.  (This is a rarely-discussed problem with bluffing a lot.  It become paradoxically much harder to put your opponents on hands. )

For example, yesterday I raised to 7$ from the cuttoff with AsKs5h4d.  The button and small blind called.  Then, the big blind (a very loose player) min-raised to 16$.  All but the small blind called.  The flop came Kh Kc 10c.  The big blind checked to me and I bet 30$ into a nearly 40$ pot.  Everyone folded but the big blind, who called.  The turn came the 9clubs, putting both a straight and a flush on the board.  The big blind lead out into me, for the size of the pot (100$).  I had about 150$ behind, and had to figure out what to do.

Tricky tricky tricky.  On the one hand, my trip kings are now beat by both straight and flushes.  In theory, that means I should fold (I don't have the right pot odds to call in hopes of making a full house on the river).  If I am going to call, I have to shove my stack into the pot; there's no point in calling off 100$ and leaving 50$ behind.  The question is, what does my opponent have?

In hold'em this might be an easy fold.  The problem is that Omaha is not Hold'Em.  When I bet the flop, I'm representing at minimum three kings.  However, it's pretty likely I could have a full house at that point, and my opponent should know that.  The range of hands that I would raise and then call a reraise with preflop includes lots of kings and tens.  Furthermore, I WOULD bet a full house in that spot; I want to get value from a lesser king, first of all, and I know the big blind doesn't respect my bets very much at this point and will call just about any flop bet (at least he has been so far).  There's no reason to check the full house there, and I wouldn't do it.

His lead on the turn represents a made hand.  The question is, would he chase a flush or a straight draw with a pair on the board?  In general, doing so in Omaha, is, as they say, bad cess.  Calling out of position to hit a non-nut hand seems like a pretty poor play, and though my opponent here is loose and aggressive, that doesn't mean he's stupid.  He knows my flop bet represents at least three kings. He can't know if I have a full house or not, but he at least knows it's possible.  The normal line for someone who'd made a straight or flush on that turn would be to check and call, hoping that I wouldn't bet unless I actually had the full house.  There's no point in leading out right there; you can really only get called by better hands.  

I write all this, although thinking back I can now see reasons why a flush might bet there; especially if he puts me on a hand like the one I have.  But, as I noted, the big blind is playing very loose and making a number of large bets.  So far I haven't seen him show many hands (he's been mostly running over the table) but I know he's betting way too often to have real hands every time.  So, after taking time to think, I push all-in.  He insta-calls and I figure: I'm dead.  (Even if I'm wrong, I decide that I have outs to a full house).  And he shows....nothing (Q 10 6 7).  He's drawing mostly dead, and when the river bricks off, I scoop the pot.  

Happy days.  Tough decision though, and one of the reasons I both love and hate Omaha.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At The Courthouse

Well, it's happened.  As of 9:30 AM this morning, we are homeowners.  At least, we are allowed to become homeowners, according to a California Probate Judge.  We still have to sign papers and all sorts of other fun stuff later, but assuming nothing goes horribly awry in the next few days, by Sunday we will have the keys to our first house.  Pretty exciting.

I have already concocted a scheme to turn our backyard into a local pit-fighting arena, for the amusement of the neighborhood youths.  I figure with ticketing and concessions we could essentially get the house to pay for itself in the first year.  My wife is skeptical.

That's the problem with wives.  Mention a backyard to them and they think "I can plant basil."   Or "we can sit outside on the porch and look at the stars."   They don't have the vision to see it as the blood-spattered combat zone it can, and should, become.

We can't move in for about a month, during which time a number of small and medium-sized repairs must be made.  (If any of you want to come install new pipes, send an email).   But after that, our own place....   Very neat.

Adulthood inches ever-closer.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Saturday Night

The Bink paces in the entryway to our apartment, a small white rectangle of tile. Every few minutes he goes to the foot of the stairs and peers down, mournfully, into the yawning darkness.
“Why isn’t she here?”
“She’s in Washington, Bink. She’s not coming back till tomorrow.”
“Washington? What’s that?”
“It’s a city. It’s far away.”
“Why would she go there?”
“It’s part of her work.”
He sniffs, disbelieving.  "Work" for Bink consists mostly of tearing large pieces of cardboard into still smaller pieces of cardboard, shredding those with his claws, and then eating what remains.  It's no wonder he can't conceive how it could involve cross-country flight.  
“Doesn’t she know that I’m here? I’m not in Washingon. I’m here.”
“She knows.”
He looks down the stairwell again. “And when is she coming home?”
“Tomorrow night.”
“That’s too long.”
“I agree.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Does McCain Still Have A Chance?

This piece in the Times explains how and why he still might win.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life and Times of Someone

I apologize for the relative of paucity of posts of late. Things should pick back up next week, when my zydeco band gets done recording our new album. ("Zydeco For Industrialists"). In the meantime, here's a clip from the new HBO show "The Life and Times of Tim." I've only seen two episodes (not this one) but both made me laugh out loud, which is something that doesn't happen to me much anymore, since the operation. Enjoy:

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Let's Be Honest

McCain has been bad. Bad on content (such as there is) and bad on delivery. He's shown poor, or at least cynical judgement. He's repeatedly failed to make a coherent argument as to why he deserves to be President. Obama has real weaknesses, ideological and practical. In both debates he's been asked some version of, "What cuts in your proposed spending programs will you make, should you be elected, in light of the recent financial difficulties question?" Both times his answer, essentially, has been: none at all. Instead, he talks about all the things he's going to do. Government-funded health care. Better schools. Energy independence in ten years. A free iPhone for everyone over the age of six. New cars! And, we'll all be able to fly! And turn sunlight into energy! And breathe underwater! It's totally absurd; saying we'll be energy independent in ten years--without any real proposals as to how we'll do that--is NOT like saying we'll go to the moon in ten years (an analogy Obama drew in his last debate). It's like saying we'll go to Pluto. And colonize it. And there breed an army of sentient bacteria who will be able to recite Paradise Lost on command. This is not to say that it's not a great goal. It is. But so is immortality.

But does McCain ever call him on this or any other of the many GAPING CHASMS in his platform? (Example: he'll save the taxpayers billions by 'closing loopholes in the current law." So easy. Kind of makes you wonder why no one else in office has had the same idea.) He does not. Instead, he recites the same old same old. He's a maverick. He's not Mr. Congeniality (Is that supposed to be make us want to vote for him?) Wall Street is rife with "greed and corruption." (Does he have a plan to ban greed? I thought the Republican Party is predicated on the assumption that greed is what drives the economy.)

And Palin... sigh. Has there ever been ANYONE less qualified to be the President of the United States? I spend no more than thirty minutes a day following current affairs. I know next to nothing about, for example, the mechanisms of the global economy. I am very murky on, to name just one topic off the top of my head, the timeline of Israel's various 20th Century conflicts. At no time in the last week (that I remember) have I closeted myself with a phalanx of policy experts and forced myself to cram for a nationally televised debate. And yet, despite all that, I could have a done a better job debating Joe Biden if I were high, drunk, and prohibited by the rules of the debate from using any word containing the letter "a."

In other words, I'm going Obama. I guess.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

And Bono, The King of Ireland

So, so funny. The last two minutes are supremely great.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fun With Math

I'm tutoring again and that means (in my case) making up practice questions. It's easier to use the questions in my book, of course. The problem is that I'm being forced to teach out of a new, and therefore unfamiliar, book, and it's impossible to find questions grouped by types. So, I write my own.

Since I figured most of my readers are big nerds and because I haven't posted in a while, I thought I'd give you all a chance to show off your SAT Math Chops (such as they are). Below are six SAT-level questions, written within the last 24 hours. The first person to send me all the correct answers will win
1) a Jeep Grand Cherokee
2) a hunting lease in Dorado County, New Mexico, and
3) a signed first edition of Shakespeare's plays.

More importantly, they'll have my undying respect. Because no matter what anybody tells you, there is NO MORE IMPORTANT SKILL in this world than the ability to solve SAT math questions accurately and quickly. No there is not.

Seriously, the first correct answer set will earn a shout-out and maybe a drink, if I know you. And like you. And you can prove you didn't cheat. (I'm talking to you, Williams).

1) All of these questions would be considered medium-level difficulty on the SAT.
2) To give yourself the true test-taking experience, you should do all questions in under six minutes.

The Mojo Itself

1. A hat is marked up 20% above its original price. Then it's new price is increased by another 30%. What is the total percent by which the original price has been increased to arrive at the final price?
A. 60%
B. 50%
C. 40%
D. 30%

2. A stuffed wombat is put on sale at 40% below normal rate. After a day, the store's owner comes to his sense, realizes how valuable wombats are, and raises the price 80% above it sale price. The final price is what percent of the original price?
A. 118%
B. 144%
C. 108%
D. 92%

3. What number is in the one's digit of 3^237?

4. Which of the following could NOT be the equation of a line parallel to the line: y = 2/3x + 4?
A. 3y-2x=9
B. 6x-4y=2
C. y=2/3x + 800
D. 3y + 10x = 4

5. Which of the following points lies on the line: y = 4x-5?
A. (-5, 0)
B. (7, 23)
C. (2, 2)
D. (4, -5)

6. The line y=x+4 forms the hypotenuse of an isoceles right triangle. If one of the remaining sides can be defined by the equation x=3, which of the following could be the equation for the third side?

A. y=6
B. x=2
C. Y=x-4
D. yx=5

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Palin the Barbarian

I don't know if I would recommend the most recent New Yorker's profile of Sarah Palin or not. It does, however, contain one unforgettable passage:
At one point [Palin] said, "We love our polar bears." She had just got through explaining why she opposed a ban on aerial wolf shooting. In the past decade or so, Alaska's voters have twice rejected this practice--the chasing and gunning down of wolves from small planes--and on both occasions the state reauthorized it. Now the anti-wolf-shooting crowd had forced a third referendum on the issue and Palin, who kept a pair of wolf pelts hanging on her office wall, behind a cradle swing for Trig, was keen to see the initiative fail."
"The chasing and gunning down of wolves from small planes...." That's a phrase you don't come across very often. Not often enough, certainly.

For the record, I have ALWAYS been part of the anti-wolf-shooting crowd.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Of Giraffes and Bloggers

My friend John over at ASWOBA has pointed me to a great new web site, one I'd encourage all of you to check out. It's called Animal Review. It contains scientifically accurate discussions about various animals leavened with huge amounts of (what seems to me very male) smart-aleck humor.  ("The central difference between Israel and skunks is the fact that Israel has never admitted to own any nukes, whereas skunks paint themselves black and give themselves white racing stripes as a way of advertising that, yes, they are skunks, yes, they’re ready to mess you up bad.")

This introduction to the giraffe is worth quoting at length.
The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis, lit. ‘Tiny, but said ironically’) is Nature’s concept car. Large and impractical, the giraffe was never meant for mass production, but some executive fell in love with it at Detroit’s annual Animal Show a few years back, and giraffes have been losing money ever since.

Massive ungulates and the tallest of the land animals, giraffes can be up to 18 feet tall and 3,800 pounds, and about two thirds of that is neck. Like most mammals, the neck of a giraffe has seven vertebrae, though in the giraffe each is elongated and covered in tacky chrome plating. Looking to justify the expense, the neck was put to use for getting leaves off acacia trees on the Africa plains, which was sold in the giraffe marketing campaign with the slogan ‘Whether in the Whole Foods produce aisle or on the Serengeti Plain – you’ll never go hungry.’ And then, in a truly gauche moment of designing nonsense, the giraffe’s head was topped with two ridiculous-looking cartilage horns.

As with most concept designs, the enormity of the giraffe created more problems than it was worth. To move blood against gravity up the neck, a giraffe requires a two-foot heart. It requires special anchor muscles to keep the neck upright. It requires a complex pressure regulation system in the upper neck to prevent blood flow to the brain when the giraffe bends over to fill up. It also requires a tight sheath of thick skin over its legs to keep the capillaries from bursting due to the blood pressure such a neck height creates. All this requires energy. Too bad, acacia trees.

As one might suspect, the giraffe’s size isn’t the advantage the guy at the dealership says it is. Sure, giraffes can eat from trees, and most predators leave them alone, but it’s not uncommon for lions to give it a go at knocking a giraffe off its feet. Then these very same lions will promptly eat the giraffe. As a rule of thumb, once one thing goes wrong with your giraffe, several other things are likely to follow. Repairs are famously expensive, and a certified giraffe mechanic can sometimes clear six figures a year.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Football Predictions

Well the new season is upon us.  Another five months of beer commercials, injury reports, and Chris Berman.  I feel the fear upon me.

Like all subjects about which I know very little, football is one on which I have a myriad of strongly-held, often conflicting opinions.  Since I know none of you will sleep tonight unless you can find out what I think about PacMan Jones, I've taken time out of my busy Chemistry Memorization Schedule, to set down some of my sure-to-be-proved right predictions about the upcoming season.*

1. The Titans will give up on Vince Young.   This will be his last year in the NFL as a starting quarterback.  All those people who made so much noise about how the Texans should have drafted Young out of college will send me personal letters of apology, agreeing with my forecast (made at the time) that he would amount to a big-time bust.

2. The Falcons will cover the spread more often than not.  They will win at least 6 games.

3. The Eagles will not make the playoffs.  Westbrook and McNabb will each miss at least 6 games due to injuries.

4. The Steelers will be really really good.  (I know: they're always good.  I didn't say these were BOLD predictions.  GET OFF MY DAMN CASE).

5. Jake Delhomme is done.

6. PacMan Jones will actually live up to his promises, not get arrested, and help his team.

7. The Browns will not make the playoffs.  They will also have two different players get in trouble with the law.  (Or, as we say here on the West Coast, "the po-pos.")

*This post was written on Saturday, a day before the season began.  So if some of the predictions already look stupid--that's why.  

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Dolt

Edgar was preparing to take the National Writers’ Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate. He was in his room, frightened. The prospect of taking the exam again put him in worlds of hurt. He had taken it twice before, with evil results. Now he was studying a book which contained not the actual questions from the examination but similar questions. “Barbara, if I don’t knock it for a loop this time I don’t know what we’ll do.” Barbara continued to address herself to the ironing board. Edgar though about saying something to his younger child, his two-year-old daughter, Rose, who was wearing a white terrycloth belted bathrobe and looked like a tiny fighter about to climb into the ring. They were all in the room while he was studying for the examination.

“The written part is where I fall down,” Edgar said morosely, to everyone in the room. “The oral part is where I do best.” He looked at the back of his wife which was pointed at him. “If I don’t kick it in the head this time I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he repeated. “Barb?” But she failed to respond to this implied question. She felt it was a false hope, taking this examination which he had already failed miserably twice and which always got him very worked up, black with fear, before he took it. Now she didn’t wish to witness the spectacle anymore so she gave him her back.

“The oral part,” Edgar continued encouragingly, “is A-okay. I can for instance give you a list of answers, I know it so well. Listen, here is an answer, can you tell me the question?” Barbara, who was very sexually attractive (that was what made Edgar tap on her for a date, many years before) but also deeply mean, said nothing. She put her mind on their silent child, Rose.

“Here is the answer,” Edgar said. “The answer is Julia Ward Howe. What is the question?”

The answer was too provocative for Barbara to resist long, because she knew the question. “Who wrote ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’?” she said. “There is not a grown person in the United States who doesn’t know that.”

-from Sixty Stories

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Prompted by a recent conversation about Kafka with a friend (the gist: his work is fun to think about but often tedious to read), this weekend I reread Walter Benjamin’s essay “Franz Kafka: On The Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” Like most Benjamin’s work, the essay, while rhetorically incoherent, brims with insight. The opening paragraph is especially wonderful:
It is related that Potemkin suffered from states of depression which recurred more or less regularly. At such times no one was allowed to go near him, and access to his room was strictly forbidden. This malady was never mentioned at court, and in particular it was known that any allusion to it incurred the disfavor of Empress Catherine. One of the Chancellor’s depressions lasted for an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature, and the Empress pressed for their completion. The high officials were at their wits’ end. One day an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin happened to enter the anteroom of the Chancellor’s palace and found the councilors of state assembled there, moaning and groaning as usual. “What is the matter, Your Excellencies?” asked the obliging Shuvalkin. The explained things to him and regretted that they could not use his services. “If that’s all it is,” said Shuvalkin, “I beg you to let me have those papers.” Having nothing to lose, the councilors of state let themselves be persuaded to do so, and with the sheaf of documents under his arm, Shuvalkin set out, through galleries and corridors, for Potemkin’s bedroom. Without stopping or bothering to knock, he turned the door-handle; the room was not locked. In semidarkness Potemkin was sitting on his bed in a threadbare nightshirt, biting his nails. Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign—first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councilors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One documents after another was signed Shuvalkin. . . Shuvalkin. . . Shuvalkin. . .

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Poker Quiz, II

Here's what I did on the hands mentioned earlier.

1. My read on the player was that he was tight, even nitty.  He wasn't a young stud; he didn't seem capable of making boldly creative plays.  Going on that, I put him on either QQ, JJ, 10/10, AQ, or AK.  Those are the hands that someone who plays his style would have opening UTG.  I don't think he had AA or KK because, given his style, he would have reraised my button raise pre-flop.  I also don't think he had a smaller pair because, given his style he wouldn't have raised UTG, he would have limped.

What that meant was that after the flop (10 J Q) I was almost certainly behind.  The only hand in his range that I beat was AQ.  For everything else, he had either flopped a set or made the nuts.  Again, given his style, I thought his opening check suggested a strong hand.  Most average touristy-type players will generally check huge hands on the flop, hoping to check-raise.  (This, by the way, is one reason I generally advocate leading out with a big hand.  Paradoxically, it often disguises the strength of your hand).  I felt, given my read, that my check was the right play.  If he had any of the hands I put him on, a bet would only amp a pot he was winning.  And if he had a set, I might unwittingly force myself to fold.  Since I had an up and down straight draw, seeing a free card could only help.  Right?

Yes and no.  The problem with the 9 (the turn card) was that it might have made me the second-best hand.  I'm beating a set, of course, but I'm still losing to AK.  And the more I studied this dude the more I believed he had AK.  Then, he lead out--for 200$.  Again, what hand could he do this with?  An eight?  Well, maybe--but I didn't think he'd called my preflop raise with 88, much less opened with it.  A set?  Again, possible, but I thought he would check a set or two pair, hoping to improve to a full house, or at least see a cheap river.  The fact that the 9 gave the board two spades lead me to believe he was betting to protect a flush draw.

I could have called here, of course.  But 200$ was almost half of my stack, and I didn't see the point of a call.  What was I going to do if I called and he shoved the river?  What was I going to do if the board paired?  The turn is often the point where you commit yourself (or not) to getting all your chips in.   That's why I try not to call large bets there.  Here it seemed like, if I called, I would be committing myself to getting all my chips in.  And, as I said, my read was that he had AK.  It hurts, but sometimes you have to fold the second-nuts.  Which is what I did (after a lot of agonizing).

2) My read here was that the player on the button was tight, and when he reraised I was worried.  He had called me preflop on the button--not raised.  To me that meant he couldn't have KK.  QQ was possible, but wouldn't he just call my flop bet with QQ, worried that I might have him beat?  (I had played very tight to that point, and I had, after all raised from very early position).  The raise worried me.  Again, I don't see the point of me calling here.  Either I'm way ahead, or way behind.  There are no draws to speak of; if he has QQ he's probably going to call a shove here (assuming he thinks it's good enough to raise with).  If he has a set, he's going to bet the next two streets, and, again, I'm going to get further and further into a pot.  To my sometimes detriment, I try to play raise and fold poker much as possible.  Calling is always my least favorite option.  So, convinced that the player had a set of 4s or 10s, I folded.  Because good players make good laydowns... Right?


The first player did indeed have AK.  Everyone was impressed by my fold (I had showed my neighbor my kings).  I was elated: I felt like I had just saved myself 500$.  Because in poker, it's not that hands you win, it's the hands you don't lose....  (Postscript: the same player got all his money in against me an hour later with two pair to my nut flush, and drew out on me on the river to win a 500$ pot.  Oh well).

The second player had KK.  He had decided to trap me before the flop by merely calling raise, figuring I had QQ or JJ and would go broke on a board of low cards.  A situation where his unorthodox play totally fooled me, though not in the way he intended.  I just did not put him on KK--I assumed he would reraise that hand preflop with two players in the pot already (and one a maniac).  Had I gone all-in, he would have called in a heartbeat and I would have won (assuming it held up) a big, big pot.

The problem with having 1000$ behind you.  You have to be willing to make big laydowns, and sometimes they are bad ones.

So, one good laydown and one bad one.  Oh well.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Odds And Wombats

I don't have any big ideas these days, but I did want to post some small bits.

1. The Poker Quiz will be answered next week.  Thanks to all who have posted; I'm really enjoying finding out what you would have done.  In my original post, I meant to say that I made the wrong play on one of those instances, and the right play on another.  Not that that should affect your reasoning.

2. No need to go into gory details here, but let me says that if I could speak the language of dogs for 30 seconds I would say this: eating the synthetic stuffing that comes inside of pee pads is not good for you.  No it is not. 

3. We made an offer on a house.  News to follow, perhaps.

4. I have a new job.  Well, actually an old job: high school tutor (SAT, Math, Physics and maybe--Gulp--Latin).  But it's a great company and the pay is good, so I'm excited.  What this means is that poker will go back to an intense hobby.  And that, my friends, is a good thing.  I've never hated playing poker so much as I did the last three months.

5. This Saturday I'm going to see a Hip-Hop dance showcase.  Really.  I know what many of you are thinking: "ANCIANT, given your mad skills, shouldn't you be _performing_ in said showcase?"  I should, yes.  But the people of LA aren't ready.

6.  Just in case any of YOU ALL feel like eating the synthetic stuffing that comes inside pee pads, be advised: they don't exactly move through the digestive system with speed and grace.  

No they do not.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Poker Quiz

Instead of writing about poker as I have in the past--a strict narrative recounting--I'm going to try something new.   I'm going to give you the information I had at the time of making relatively big decisions and let you all tell me what you would do.  In a week or so, I'll post again, tell you what I did in each situation, and how it worked it out.  Both of these hands occurred in Las Vegas in the last few months; in both instances I later found out what hand my opponent held.

Hand One: The Wynn Casino, 2/5 NL

I have been sitting at the table for about an hour.  I have played tight aggressive and have built up my 400$ buy-in to about 550$.  I haven't shown down a hand yet.

My opponent raises under the gun to 30$.  He gets one caller in middle position.  On the button, I look down to see KK.  I raise to 90$.  Both players call.  They each have about 500$ in front of them.

The flop comes 10s Jc Qd.  Both players check to me.  I check.

The turn: 9s.  The UTG player leads out for 200$.  The middle position player dithers out loud for a long time, and more or less tells the table he's behind but he wants to gamble.  He calls the 200$.  

Action is to me.  What should I do?

Before you answer, here's what I know about the UTG player (the middle position player is irrelevant).  He's late-30s, early 40s.  Slightly balding beneath a canvas-type baseball cap.  I believe I've heard him say to someone that he owns a car dealership out of state.  He's not played many hands.  

Hand Two: The Bellagio.  5/10 NL.

This was one of my first forays into 5/10 NL.  I have about 800$ in front of me, and the rest of the players at the table have the same.  I have dropped about 200$ over the course of about three hands in 1.5 hours.  

In  early position, I look down at AA.   A massive massive donk in front of me limps for 10$.  He has played nearly every hand at this point.  I raise to 60$ (the standard opening at the table).  A player on the button calls.  The donk calls.  

The flop comes: 4 10 2, rainbow.  The donk checks.  I lead out for 120$.   The button player makes it 350$.   The donk folds.

Action is to me.  What do I do?

The button player, the raiser, is a heavyset late 20s guy.  Friendly, and clearly from out of state.  He has sat down about 30 minutes ago.  He did not post until the big blind came around to him, waiting for about 15 minutes at the table.  He has played one hand so far, calling a preflop bet and then folding the flop.

All right, let's go: feedback!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


I have invented an exciting new game.  The rules are as follows:

1. Obtain one (1) human-sized foot. No prosthetics.
2. Place foot near to fellow player.
3. Wait for signal (one leg, quivering, raised slightly above the ground) that attack is imminent.
4. Move foot sharply to one side.
5. Allow fellow player to again get near to foot.
6. Repeat, until you or fellow player is tired.*

*N.B. Fellow Player will never become tired. Ever.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Fear of Being Accurate

Well the Olympics are almost here, and with them a chance to think about sports we generally ignore.  This New York Times piece on "target panic," an affliction suffered by expert archers, is worth a read.  I especially liked the advice about how to begin to manage the problem: “Do not focus on results....when you focus on results, it builds anxiety. And anxiety is the kiss of death.”

Interesting to me is that this is exactly the way to extract yourself from a poker-playing condition known as "tilt."  Of course it's easy to say, and very hard to do, but it is THE cure.   When I start to run bad, and lose more than one or two session in a row, I try to convince myself, before I sit down to a new game, that I'm probably going to lose some money.  I'm not TRYING to lose--I haven't given up--I just accept beforehand that I probably will.  For some reason this forces me to try to enjoy the experience for what it is (like trying to find something interesting about the special effects in some terrible movie you can't walk out of).  It doesn't work every time, but it works a lot.  I'll finish a session thinking, "that was actually kind of fun" and then notice, with real surprise, that I've won $500.  (This is all online; it's much harder not to know whether you're winning or losing when you play at a casino.)

I digress.  But, anyway, a good piece.  One year when I was at camp, a bunch of pro-level archers came in to shoot at tennis balls hanging from tree branches.  They didn't hit every shot, but they hit a lot of them, and I remember thinking how fun it looked.  I could never hunt, but if I did, I would use a bow.  At least there's some sport in that.  (He says, knowing next to nothing about hunting with gun, bow, boomerang or even plastic harpoon.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Ever since Jon Pareles savaged them in The New York Times a few years ago, Coldplay has been a band that the cool kids won't touch. Actually, the cool kids probably don't give a rat's ass what the New York Times Arts and Leisure section says about a band, but the cool adults sure do. It didn't help that their next album, the lethargic X & Y, confirmed about 2/3 of Pareles' accusations, snarky and New York Times-ish as they were.  (Is that an adjective?  It should be.)

For all that, I've always liked Coldplay. I like Chris Martin's voice: I like a lot of their music, and I generally support their entire aesthetic.  They have the courage to be positive, to sing about big things without irony or cynicism.  Sometimes that makes them sound pretty vacuous, but on the other hand it also allows for moments of real spiritual beauty ("Yellow," for example, is a song I still find incredibly moving).  Are they as emotionally or musically sophisticated as Radiohead? No. Can Chris Martin come off, as the Brits say, as something of a nob? Yes he can. Still, I always wince when someone starts slamming into Coldplay.  It's just too easy.  Why not burn a few disco records while you're at it?

And I really like the new album ("Vida La Vida"). It's definitely their best to date. Adding Brian Eno to produce was a great idea; there's a little more sonic complexity; the album tends to be faster and heavier than their previous work, and Martin keeps the falsetto to a minimum.  It's got at least three great songs on it ("Yes" is my favorite of the moment) and it rewards relistening; a lot of the songs get better the more you hear them.  

It's probably not the best album of the year (not that I would know) but it's definitely better than In Rainbows (Radiohead's newest album).  So, you know, give it a listen.  Let me know what you all think.... (Except you, Johannes) 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ante Up

I encountered this video on Andrew Sullivan's blog. I've watched it at least three times a day since the first time I saw it. It gets better with each viewing. My favorite moment right now comes after the second voice (Bert) takes up the rap--Ernie's interrupting "hos" crack me up every time.

Man this is funny.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Feeling Good

I have become semi-hooked on the show "So You Think You Can Dance." If you've never seen it, the premise is simple. Each week dancers are randomly assigned a partner, a kind of dance style (Tango, Disco, Foxtrot, etc), given a choreographer, and forced to learn a routine in that style. At the end of the show, callers vote on who has done the best. The worst two dancers are sent home; then, the next week, partners are reassigned and new styles are assigned.

For reasons that don't bear that much going into (it has to do with the way the bottom tier of dancers are voted off) sometimes the dancers have to perform solo routines. Most of the times these are eminently forgettable. A few, however, are incredible. I especially like the hip hop/breakdance solos. This one, by the freakishly strong and acrobatic Gev (voted off last week) is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Some Predictions

I'm following Major League Baseball this summer, in large part because I like watching "Baseball Tonight" every night before I go to bed. I've probably only watched a handful of actual games, and none in their entirety. But will I let that stop me from issuing many (semi-) bold predictions about the second half of the season? Of course not. Here goes.

1) The Tampa Bay Rays (Devil no longer, for those who haven't been watching) will not make the playoffs.
2) The Anaheim Angels will win the AL.
3) The Phillies will win the NL.
4) The Mets WILL make the playoffs.
5) Eric Young will be fired from Baseball Tonight and never allowed to set foot in front of a TV camera again.

Well, ok; the last one's not so much a prediction as a hope. A fervent, fervent hope.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another Bink-Related Entry

Since acquiring a small dog, I've been thinking a lot about Calvin and Hobbes. There's a certain expression that Elliot assumes--always after he's inflicted some depredation on our apartment--which this strip perfectly summarizes:

That's it--Calvin's got it. "What? What are you concerned about?" I guess you'd have to call it innocence, though it seems like beyond even that.

OF COURSE he's unravelling an entire roll of toilet paper. Of COURSE he's eaten three strips of masking tape, and then chewed a hole in his bed. Those things are nearby, aren't they? What do you expect him to do? NOT eat the masking tape?  WHERE WOULD BE THE FUN IN THAT?

Sunday, July 6, 2008


I've been watching tennis since I was six years old. I've seen all of our era's greats: McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, Sampras. I've seen maybe 60% of the Grand Slam finals in the last fifteen years. I have never seen a match like this one. I never will. Superlatives are overused and comparisons are odious, but still: this year's Men's Wimbledon final was the greatest tennis match I have ever seen. I will be amazed if a better one is ever played. Both men hit shots that no other tennis player has ever been able to hit--over and over and over. It lasted five sets, almost five hours. It was epic. More than that, it was sublime. Insofar as watching sports can ever approach the sensation of experiencing great art, this did.

Monday, June 30, 2008


I know, it's a lot of pictures. What can I say? It's my blog: if I want to put up cute dog pictures, then I'm a gonna.

His name, by the way, is Elliot. It's half because of the associations with T.S. Eliot (noted Arsenal striker) and half because we just like the name.

His nickname is “Binky.” (Short for “Binky Bear,” which is what my wife called him for the first week we had him). I like it all together: Elliot “Binky” Lake. It sounds like the captain of the 1930s Princeton Crew team. Which he could be, if he wanted.

When we're talking about him, and not to him, we call him “The Bink.” It reminds me of both The Simpsons (“The Boy”) and The Wire (“The Bunk”) both of which associations I totally support. “The Bink” is mischevious, and boy-like (like Bart), but he’s also got the street smarts that come from twenty years of work with the Baltimore homicide department. I certainly wouldn’t want him hunting me down for doing one of them corner hoppers. He would have me in days.

He’s been a joy, mostly. As I remarked to my wife yesterday when we took him on his first outdoor walk (which he LOVED): we are SO LA. A small white dog. A fabulous-looking woman. An unemployed screenwriter with a cocaine addiction. (Joking). It’s enough to make you sick.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Human Voices

The British writer Penelope Fitzgerald is an underrated master.  Everybody should read her work.  I would recommend especially: The Blue Flower, Offshore, Innocence, and Human Voices.  If it's not enough that her novels are wise, funny, and rife with fantastically well-turned phrases, everything she wrote is under 200 pages.   Most of it's under 150.  So it's not a huge commitment.

Her books don't have to be long because they are so dense with observation and insight.  I think the following passage, from Human Voices, should make that clear.  The book is set in England during World War II, at the BBC.  "Sam" is a senior excecutive, in charge of recording technologies.  The "Controllers" are the heads of the BBC.  "Wolseleys" are cars.

At the time of the Munich Agreement a memo had been sent round calling, as a matter of urgency, for the recording of the country's heritage.

It was headed Lest we forget our Englishery.  Sam had disappeared for over two weeks in one of the Wolseleys, pretty infirm even at that time, with an engineer and an elderly German refugee, Dr Vogel--Dr Vogel, cruelly bent, deaf in one ear, but known to be the greatest expert in Europe on recorded atmosphere.

There was not much hope of commonsense prevailing.  Dr Vogel, in spite of his politeness and gentle ganz meinherheits, was an obsessive, who had been seen to take the arms of passers-by in his bony grip and beg to record their breathing, for he wished to record England's wheezing before the autumn fogs began.  'Have the goodness, sir, to cough a little into my apparatus.'  Sam thought the idea excellent.

The expedition to the English countryside arrived back with a very large number of discs.  The engineer who had gone with them said nothing.  He went straight away to have a drink.  It was probably a misfortune that the Controllers were so interested in the project that they demanded a playback straight away.  Usually there was a judicious interval before they expressed any opinion, but not this time.

'What we have been listening to--patiently, always in the hope of something else coming up--amounts to more than six hundred bands of creaking.  To be accurate, some are a mixture of squeaking and creaking.'

'They're all from the parish church of Hither Lickington,' Sam explained eagerly.  'It was recommended to us by Religious Broadcasting as the top place in the Home Counties.  What you're hearing is the hinges of the door and the door itself opening and shutting as the old women come in one by one with the stuff for the Harvest Festival.  The quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so.  Some of them have got more to carry, so the door has to open wider.  That's when you get the squeak.'

'Hark, the vegetable marrow comes!' cried Dr Vogel, his head on one side, well contented.
There's so much in here that I love, but I would especially note: "patiently, always in the hope of something else coming up"; "the quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so"; and the final line--"Hark, the vegetable marrow comes!'"  It's funny and it's kind, and, yes, British eccentricity is hardly the newest subject in the world, but Fitzgerald does it better than just about anyone, at least anyone who wrote in the last hundred years.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dog Ownership: The Statistic

Percentage of conversations between me and my wife, prior to acquiring our dog, that used the word "poo": 0.50

Percentage of conversations between me and my wife, after acquiring our dog, that use the word "poo": 18.8

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nunc Est Bibendum

Sitting down with a glass (or three) of red wine at the end of the day has become one of my great guilty pleasures. Guilty, or at least semi-guilty, because I can’t forsake the belief, inculcated in me since birth, that, probably, the best way to live is free from all chemical distortion. I don’t live this way, mostly, but I still kind of think I should. So in typical WASP-like fashion (or maybe just Me-like fashion) I dilute my enjoyment with my sense that the enjoyment, because it is not bettering or enriching, is somehow transgressive. (Though one could make an interesting argument that purely sensual experience is, in fact, a variety of knowledge and that since all knowledge is somehow useful, purely sensual experience has value.  Right?  Sure you could.  Sure you could.)

This is all relevant (sort of) because a few studies seem to suggest that drinking red wine can increase human longevity. Of course, there are caveats. The relevant studies were done on mice, first of all, and the mice in question were given amounts of wine equivalent in human terms to a hundred bottles a day. Whether only a glass or two a night would have similar effects is very much an open question.

But come on.   Let’s not strain at gnats. What I take from this article is this: science is saying—demanding, in fact—that I drink red wine.  And not just a little red wine: a LOT of red wine.   It’s science, people. What am I going to do--argue?  It's SCIENCE.  Our lone arbiters of truth. Clearly we have to do what they say.  Whether we like it or not.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Loneliness Of The Short-Distance Napper

I have never had a child. At least in this country. At least where I stayed around afterwards and helped to raise it. Or pay for it. Or learned its name.

But the thing that’s always seemed the hardest to me about having a children—the thing that all parents struggle with—is their children’s suffering. Your child cries, because it’s lonely or afraid, or because you’ve put on your giant hippopatumus head to rehearse your community theater’s interpretation of Death of A Salesman and the smell of all that matted hippo hair makes it upset. And—at least most of the time—there’s nothing you can do.  (I mean, yes, you could take the head off, but what about the theater-goers?)  It’s afraid, or it’s lonely, and it just has to be sad and lonely (some of the time); it has to learn that at least some part of life is suffering.  And all you can do--and at least, some of the time, all you should do--is watch.

I bring all this up because, as of Tuesday morning, we now have a new puppy. (Working name: Zogbert.) He is small (he weighs two pounds). He is cute. He is furry. And he is sad. Last night he was living with a half-dozen other Maltese dogs, in the only home he’d known since the time of his birth (six weeks ago). Now he is in a new home—one that has no other dogs in it. One which does not have a “Please Wipe Your Paws” doormat outside of it. One in which he’s expected to kill at least one burglar a day, if he wants to be fed. It’s all strange, and it’s all scary, and naturally he’s a little upset.

It turns out when a Maltese is upset, they make a sad small whimpering noise. It sounds a little like the most forlorn rubber squeeze toy in the world. When they’re really upset they make a noise that sounds uncannily like the “pc-caw” sound you hear from chickens. (Really). I know because I’ve heard quite a number of those noises this morning.

Now, as most of you know, my heart is made of steel and bone. I’m hard all the way through. I’ve been in wars. I’ve run drugs in and out of Colombia. I’ve killed men for money. The whimpering of a small dog doesn’t faze me. I know that in a few days he’ll be comfortable and his usual personality—excited, playful, joyous—will reemerge. (Only then will he begin the burglar-slaying I expect of him).

My wife, though, is a different story. She has a good deal more natural empathy than I have. She doesn’t like to be around suffering. The trials of our new roommate are upsetting her. She knows, of course, that we can’t come running into his room every time he whimpers; we have our own lives and he has to learn to be OK by himself. But knowing with your mind and knowing with your heart are different matters altogether. So right now things are a little bit dicey.

However, I have a solution. I’m going down to the HippoHead Emporium (Pico and Sepulveda). I’m getting me a head. And I’m going to perform the entirety of Beckett's “Endgame.”  If that doesn't work, we’ll watch the later works of Ingmar Bergman. If that doesn’t cheer everyone up, I don’t know what will.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Vortex and its Wrangling

Check out some of the prose in this appreciation of the hugely mediocre LOST, by Times TV Critic, Gina Bellafonte.
Good dramas confound our expectations, but “Lost,” about a factionalized group of plane crash survivors on a cartographically indeterminate island not anything like Aruba, pushes further, destabilizing the ground on which those expectations might be built. It is an opiate, and like all opiates, it produces its own masochistic delirium.  With this season truncated by the writers’ strike, “Lost” has quickened its pace and wrangled us deep into the vortex of its revelations
On no level does this work. ("Wrangled us deep into the vortex"!?!)   It’s murkily written, rhetorically obfuscating, and laughably pretentious. It sounds like it was written for an undergrad class on "Understanding Media" by someone who's stayed up all night reading Roland Barthes. But then, if you're going to write with any degree of rigor and intellectual honesty you're not going to have a chance in hell of defending "Lost" --that endless shell game of unkept narrative promises.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Questions about the Dog

I’ve gotten a lot of quesitons about the dog and I thought it’d be easier to answer all of them at once.

I don’t understand; you’re such a savagely macho person. How can you be content with a little fluff dog? Don’t you need something that more nearly accords with your inner nature? Like a dingo?
Ideally, yes. But:
a) We live in a big city
b) We live in an apartment
c) We have no yard
d) I don’t have the time to attend to a larger animal.

MAN he is cute. Is it legal for a living being to be that cute?
It is in Moldova. I can’t go into more details, but let’s just say that if the Animal INS comes calling, we’re in trouble.

Are you going to turn into one of those pet people?
What the hell is that supposed to mean?

You know—who talks about their pets all the time? And shows everyone they meet pictures of their pet?
First of all, we don’t meet anybody to talk to. Or show pictures to. So it’s really moot.

But, no, I think we’re going to be restrained and even-keeled about the new puppy (“Untitled.”) Aside from getting his face tattooed on my back. And making muffins using a mold we make from his body shape, and eating them every morning, and calling them “Doggy Bites.” And changing our wills so he inherits all our possessions.

Any good name ideas?

Our friend, Incremental, says that you have to meet the dog and divine his internal essence before you can name him. That will be next week. More reports to follow.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ecco The Dog

That's him--our new dog. At least he will be if all goes according to plan. We pick him up on June 1. And then, as you would assume, start to train him to herd sheep. And, if we have time, to rescue mountaineers. I also have an idea that we might be able to lease him to a movie studio, for shots when they need a trained killer attack dog, but that's still working itself out.

Savage-looking, isn't he?

He's a Maltese. Right now, we don't have a name. So if anyone has any good ideas (GOOD IDEAS, Johannes), please--send them along.

By the way, "Xerxes" is already out. I tried, but the wife's anti-Persian bias pretty much makes that impossible.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Philip, Wake Up

I keep thinking about this scene. It's from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Bowie does a Southern accent and sheds light (sort of) on some of the lingering mysteries of the series. My favorite line--the one that made me think of this in the first place--was with me when I woke up today. "I've BEEN to one of their meetings!"

Monday, April 28, 2008

Causes of History

The historian and the storyteller (novelist, screenwriter) finally are interested in the same question: why do things happen? Why does a man decide to murder his wife? Why does a king invade another country, or start a new religion? Why does someone decide (and do they, really, “decide”) to become a doctor, or a lawyer? The historian Peter Gay proposes, in answer, a “tripartite division of causes into immediate ‘releasers,’ short-ranger dterminants, and long-range causes, and a comprable division of 'worlds' (‘Man lives in several worlds at once, each of them capable of supplying causes’) into culture, craft, and the private sphere.”

I quote from John Updike’s review of Gay’s Art and Act (in Hugging the Shore), an attempt on Gay’s part “to analyze the structure of historical causation by means of those who paint pictures and design houses rather than those who lie for money or kill for glory….” Among the many felicities to be found in Updike’s review is this passage on the utlitity of trying to propose historical causes—come up with reasons--in of itself:
Though….any history is to some extent stylized, the attempt must be made. Otherwise, the nightmare of medieval nominalism is upon us again, and by a kind of Zeno’s paradox of infinte factual subdivision the Achilles of understanding can never overtake the gargantuan tortoise of reality.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Best Poem James Wright Ever Wrote

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

To My Aid, My Prince! How the hell are my tomatoes going to get any light?

Reading Wikipedia today I learn that the Channel Island of Sark has just become the last country in the world to abandon feudalism as a government system.   Intrigued, I read up on Sark, an island of approximately 2 square miles with a population of about 600 people. The whole entry is highly recommended, but by far my favorite paragraph comes at the end:
Among the old laws of the Channel Islands is the old Norman custom of the Clameur de Haro, a legal device which also still exists in the other Channel Islands.[clarify] A person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord's Prayer in French and cry out "Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!"[2] ("Haro, Haro, Haro! To my aid, my Prince! One does me wrong!") It should then be registered with the Greffe Office within 24 hours. All actions against the person must then cease until the matter is heard by the Court. It is not frequently used; the last recorded Clameur was raised in June 1970 to prevent the construction of a garden wall.[3] The Clameur has been used on occasions since then in the other islands.
A garden wall. Somehow I can’t help thinking that was NOT the function for which “Clamuer” was originally intended. 

The world is very odd.  Excitingly so.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thoughts On Writing

I’ve been reading Updike’s collected criticism, Hugging The Shore. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Updike—elegance, suavity, compassion. Here’s a selection from a review of Hemingway’s letters which I found surprisingly insightful.   (The Hemingway, I mean: Updike never surprises you with insight.)

…upon receiving the volume of his collected short stoires in 1938, he wrote Maxewll Perkins, “When I got the book and saw all those stoires I knew I was all right as a sort of lasting business if I kicked off tomorrow.”

For this rough, rude, appetitive, and even murderous man had bent his thoughts more intently toward literary immortality and perfection of prose than any American fiction writer since Henry James. His writing competed with his life—at first, with the need to make a dollar and the wish to have a good time; later, with celebrity, ill health, and the wish to have a good time.
In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and ahammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shiny and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
Thus he introduced the book of stories that certified him, he flet, as “a sort of lasting business.” In all the conditions of convalescence and hangover, in hotel rooms and at his homes in Paris and Key West, Cuba and Sun Valley, he wrote, rising early and lovingly noting the number of words acheivered each morning—a habit left over from his days of counting words for foreign dispatch....