Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bird Brains

A local news report informed me earlier this evening that there are 23,000 wild turkeys in NJ according to the state DEP. They mean the fowl, not the whiskey. It is not entirely clear to me who counted or how, but I’ll take the DEP’s word for it. At least a few of the birds live in the woods around my house. They don’t walk through my yard very often, but when they do they do so nonchalantly without apparent concern about ending up on the menu.

For anyone accustomed only to domestic turkeys the wild ones, though not technically a separate species, hold some surprises beyond the color of their feathers. For one thing they fly. They don’t fly particularly well, and most of the time they prefer not to, but they can. They sometimes swoop over the lawn or get up into the trees. For another thing they are fearless. Domestic turkeys are too in a way, but one gets the sense that domestic ones just don’t know any better. Wild turkeys are fearless out of confidence rather than ignorance. On occasion one can be aggressive. An aggressive turkey is annoying rather than truly dangerous, of course, except maybe to a toddler. Finally, they are smarter than their farm-bred kinfolk.

Domestic turkeys are stupid. There is no kinder way to say it and still deliver the facts. My grandfather, a farmer, lost some of the birds because they looked up in the sky with their beaks open when it was raining and drowned themselves. In their scholarly article Some Remarks on Bird's Brain and Behavior under the Constraints of Domestication, Julia Mehlhorn and Gerd Rehkämper remark, "domestic turkeys show the highest degree of brain reduction measured in any of the domesticated birds so far.” No surprise there. So, while these birds face bad odds at Thanksgiving time, if that Zombie Apocalypse depicted in so many movies ever happens, they’ll be safe. Unless it rains.

It long has been known that domestication reduces the brain size of animals. From the same Mehlhorn and Rehkämper article: “Empirical data on brain sizes which show smaller brains in dogs than in wolves or in domestic ducks in comparison to mallards seem to support this point of view.” Before we admire too much the skills of our ancestors who successfully dumbed down animals to make them more manageable, it’s worth noting that they did the same to themselves. To us.

Brain size peaked in humans 20,000 years ago and since then has dropped substantially, both as a percentage of body mass and in absolute terms – from an average 1500 cc to 1350 cc. (Homo Erectus was 1100 cc – we’re getting there.) David Geary, a cognitive scientist at the University of Missouri, speculates, “I think the best explanation for the decline in our brain size is the Idiocracy theory.” He and his colleague Drew Bailey were able to show a correlation in the archaeological record between population density and brain size decline, whether in early farming regions such as the Middle East or hunter-gatherer regions such as aboriginal Australia. “We saw that trend in Europe, China, Africa, Malaysia—everywhere we looked.” The hypothesis is that when societies grow large enough to carry the dim bulbs who would not be clever enough to survive without a social safety net, there is no particular advantage to large brains or high intelligence. The dim bulbs live to reproduce. There is, on the other hand, an advantage to characteristics that suit living peacefully among others. In other words, there is an advantage to being tame and domesticated. Domestication, once again, shrinks the noggin. Hence the reference to the Idiocracy movie.

So long as the turkey is on our menu and not we on its, we’re probably not in too much trouble. But if a Cro-Magnon shows up for dinner, don’t try to beat him at chess afterward.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Desperately Seeking Wonka

My tastes are uninterestingly conventional in most matters, whether in durable goods, consumables, affections, or activities: utterly bourgeois without redeeming depraved fetishes. I like to think my taste in movies and literature is good, but it’s not ultra-refined by any means: I’m seldom in art movie houses and science fiction occupies a disproportionate share of my bookshelf space. I’m neither a wine, beer, nor coffee connoisseur. Nonetheless, I try to avoid lapsing into reverse snobbery, which is always a temptation for those who don’t fully appreciate some of the finer things. We all know this sort of snob: the emphatic man-of-the-people proud to disdain wine and art collectors (among others) as effete elitists with too much money and too little sense of proportion. This snobbery is as unfair as the elitist kind. Great art, science, and craft really do go into the production of wines, and it is admirable to be an enthusiast who has learned enough to appreciate even tiny nuances and distinctions. I just don’t happen to be one of them. I use wine as an example precisely because wine appreciation, while still not entirely exoteric, has gone more mainstream in the US in recent decades – certainly more so than the 1970s when cheap sangria counted as a chic beverage at most parties.

The mainstreaming of upscale products is not confined to wine, of course; numerous products have followed the same path, thereby aiding mightily the profits of suppliers. Mineral waters, for instance, have been around pretty much forever, but during the 1970s they were very much a minority taste; the tap was fine for the vast majority. Bottled water more expensive than gasoline caught on with a larger public afterward. In the same way, there always have been connoisseurs of beer, but specialty beers and microbreweries didn’t really start denting Anheuser-Busch sales until a couple decades ago. Need what happened to coffee shops even be mentioned?

What brings this to mind is, of all things, the jar of leftover Halloween candies I raided a few minutes ago. I rarely get trick-or-treaters but want to be prepared just in case, so there are always leftover Halloween candies. While plucking out a Hershey chocolate bar from the jar, it occurred to me that chocolate might be poised to be the next big thing in the mainstreaming of the upscale. It has all the proper hallmarks. It is a widely enjoyed flavor in its common forms; it is in fact the most popular single dessert and snack flavor. There already is – and always has been – a minority of aficionados willing to pay extraordinary sums for the finest chocolate products. There are and always have been specialty makers and shops. Regional soils and climate affect taste. Chocolate differs according to bean type, cocoa butter content, sugar content, dairy content, weather, and even the local water. Heating and cooling methods profoundly affect texture. So, there is much for a specialist to know.

I’ve tried and liked expensive craft chocolates from several countries, but, as in so many other things, I am a barbarian; I’m satisfied enough with a mass produced Nestlé or Hershey bar to be reluctant to pay the high cost of craft products. However, I can appreciate that others do appreciate the difference enough to shell out for it. Perhaps we are only awaiting the right chain of upscale chocolate shops (Ishmael’s?) to bring a larger public on board.

Have you ever tried a cocoa bean (aka cacao) in its raw state? Don’t. It’s like a foul bitter chunk of stringy wood, which isn’t surprising since the beans grow right out of the bark of trees rather than on the tips of twigs as one might expect. Forastero, Trinitario, Criollo, and Nacional are the four major bean types. Forastero is the one most commonly used in mass produced chocolate because of its high yield. When harvested the beans are thrown on the ground and left to rot – on purpose. They ferment there which brings out the first hints of chocolate flavor. Weather strongly affects how the fermentation happens, so there are vintage equivalents, with some years preferred over others for each region. After fermentation, if you roast the beans, crush them, and mix them in hot water you have the original chocolatl of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Mexica (Aztecs). This is an interesting but not very pleasant drink. Chocolatl means bitter water, and so it is; moreover the cocoa butter (fat) tends to separate thereby giving the drink an oily/gravelly texture. When introduced to Europe it became a novelty drink and it remained that for a few hundred years.

The breakthrough came in 1828 when Van Houten in the Netherlands used a special press to crush the beans to fine powder called Dutch cocoa. This also squeezed out most of the cocoa butter in a much smoother state. Experimenters then mixed the smooth cocoa butter back with the powder, added sugar, and created modern chocolate. Fry & Sons in England began producing chocolate bars in 1847. In Switzerland in 1875 Daniel Peter produced milk chocolate by adding Nestlé powdered milk. Dark and milk chocolates have competed ever since. Local differences in milk and milk fat content affect flavor. Some producers still use powder and others (especially in the UK and US) liquid milk.

There is more to chocolate than flavor. Chocolate contains caffeine, cannabinoids, and theobromine, all of which are psychoactive and may account for some of the pleasure we take in it. Health benefits are claimed for chocolate. If they exist they are probably due to the antioxidants in the beans.

So, all the complexity and craftsmanship that go into chocolate-making should be enough to induce a broader base of connoisseurs (Wonkateers?) to bid up prices and debate star ratings. As for me, though, the Hershey’s is gone and I’m going back to the jar for a Nestlé’s Crunch.

Cadbury ad

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Non-Generic: Lucinda Williams

Back in Paleo-circuit times (pre-internet: Neo-circuit would be dial-up internet) electronic media by necessity were mass media. There was a fairly small number of broadcast radio and TV stations and…well…that was all.  To be sure, there were niche music radio stations even in the early days: country, classical, jazz, etc. In nearly every market, however, there was a dominant top 40 radio station to which most home, car, and portable radios were tuned at least part of the day. In the NYC area, this for at least two decades was 77 WABC AM. While I appreciate and make use of the massively greater array of media choices available today, there was one peculiar advantage to the more limited options of the Paleo-circuit. The top 40 stations were literally that. There was no division by genre; if the top singles one week were by Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, and Tammy Wynette, those were the singles that aired. Recording artists who appeared on television were the same ones who turned up on the top 40 stations. Here is a play list from 1974:

1. The Way We Were - Barbra Streisand
2. Seasons In the Sun, Terry Jacks
3. Love's Theme, Love Unlimited Orchestra
4. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone
5. Dancing Machine, The Jackson 5
6. The Loco-Motion, Grand Funk Railroad
7. T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), MFSB
8. The Streak, Ray Stevens
9. Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
10. One Hell of a Woman, Mac Davis
11. Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do), Aretha Franklin
12. Jungle Boogie, Kool and The Gang
13. Midnight At the Oasis, Maria Muldaur
14. You Make Me Feel Brand New, The Stylistics
15. Show and Tell, Al Wilson
16. Spiders and Snakes, Jim Stafford
17. Rock On, David Essex
18. Sunshine On My Shoulders, John Denver
19. Sideshow, Blue Magic
20. Hooked On a Feeling, Blue Swede
21. Billy, Don't Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods
22. Band On the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings
23. The Most Beautiful Girl, Charlie Rich
24. Time In a Bottle, Jim Croce
25. Annie's Song, John Denver
26. Let Me Be There, Olivia Newton-John
27. Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot
28. (You're) Having My Baby, Paul Anka
29. Rock Me Gently, Andy Kim
30. Boogie Down, Eddie Kendricks
31. You're Sixteen You're Beautiful (And You're Mine), Ringo Starr
32. If You Love Me (Let Me Know), Olivia Newton-John
33. Dark Lady, Cher
34. Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, Gladys Knight and The Pips
35. Feel Like Makin' Love, Roberta Flack
36. Just Don't Want to Be Lonely, The Main Ingredient
37. Nothing from Nothing, Billy Preston
38. Rock Your Baby, George McCrae
39. Top of the World, The Carpenters
40. The Joker, The Steve Miller Band

Not much consistency there. Accordingly, audiences had more cross-genre exposure than today. We heard a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have chosen to hear if we had programmed the music. Nowadays, of course, we do effectively program our own music, selectively storing and playing our preferred tunes and videos in a multitude of formats. A curious consequence of all these choices is that we tend to be less eclectic. We focus on our preferred brands of music and visual entertainment, while even the old-tech radio and TV stations have grown ever more niche-oriented in order to grab some piece of the fractured audience. (This is also true of opinion and politics, but that is a subject for another blog.)

Some artists are hard to pigeonhole, of course. They fall between the niches. This is certainly true of the blues/rock/country/folk fusion of Lucinda Williams, who is one of the best songwriters working today as she has been for more than 30 years. Her indeterminate style hasn’t stopped her from winning awards and selling recordings, but it does make her less well-known to a broad audience than she would have been years ago. Niche stations are never quite sure that she fits. In ’99 she won a Grammy in a Contemporary Folk category even though that description of her album was more than a little dubious. Paul Rice in a Slant review of Lucinda’s new double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone comments, “In other words, should Williams be nominated next year, expect the Grammys to once again have no idea what to do with her.”

I’ll be surprised if the Grammys do not face that head-scratcher because Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a fine album. At 61, Lucinda has worldly cynicism but without the bitterness of youth. Songwriters in this stage of life (e.g. Joan Jett in last year’s Unvarnished album) often get retrospective and contemplative as mortality grows harder to ignore. The perspective often enriches their work, and it does here. It’s an impressive collection of songs, all delivered in her distinctive gravelly voice. There are dark songs such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, tough songs such as Cold Day in Hell, sad songs such as This Old Heartache, and songs that smell of the bayou (Lucinda is from Lake Charles, LA) such as Stand Right by Each Other. Some are mellow and some rock. A few, such as Walk On, are very close to modern country but not quite there. She doesn't want to go quite there. In a Rolling Stone interview, she was dismissive of modern country and quoted bassist John Ciambotti: "Country music today is like Seventies rock without the cocaine."

If you’re thinking this isn’t really your kind of music, you’re probably right. It isn’t mine either. I’m not sure it is anybody’s. Nevertheless, I’m glad I bought the album anyway.  Both CDs from the pack are currently in my stereo’s CD tray – with the Offspring, Eric Burdon, and Theory of a Deadman, which are odd company. They’re likely to stay there for a while.

West Memphis (from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone)

Philly Blocks Morristown: Roller Derby Recap

I’ve seen the Philly Block Party skate numerous times against teams from both of Morristown’s derby leagues, and seen them defeated only once. Not only do they typically win but win big. Only two months ago the Philly Block Party defeated Morristown’s Corporal Punishers on the latter’s home rink 232-107. In last night’s rematch the early jams threatened a replay of the September bout. JK Trolling scored for Philly on first jam with multiple passes through the pack while Philly blockers displayed a solidity they would show consistently throughout the bout. For several jams Philly built on its lead. The Corporal Punishers soon recovered their footing. At first the Punishers chipped away at their opponents’ lead, and then overtook them with a major point haul by Brass Knuckles. With 5 minutes remaining in the first half, the Block Party recaptured a razor thin lead.

The second half remained competitive while blocking on both sides grew more fierce resulting in knock-downs and pile-ups. With 15 minutes remaining in the bout, Philly led 168-152, a margin that in derby is anything but safe. The Block Party was able to stretch its advantage in power jams, however. In the final jam JK Trolling broke through Punisher defenses into lead jammer position and literally sashayed around the track as the clock ran out. Final score: 238-182 in favor of Philly.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mr. Spock, Sneak Drinker?

I got one of those late night drunken phone calls. You know the ones. Or perhaps you don’t. Nowadays there is a plethora of other ways to communicate inappropriately while drunk: texts, tweets, facebook comments, etc. Voice communication might be considered quaint in some generational quarters. There remain some, however, who keep the tradition alive. Truth be told, in my more bibulous 20s I made a few such calls myself. Those days, both fortunately and unfortunately, are a long time ago. Nonetheless I received one last night. The caller had some life decisions to make and wanted a sounding board – not advice, so I didn’t offer any. I probably wouldn’t have offered any if asked. If the caller came to a decision, one hopes it was considered also in the sober (and probably painful) morning.

Holding off on implementing a drunken idea until sober is a wise precaution, but is there also sense to holding off on a sober idea until regarding it drunk? There may well be. It has historical tradition behind it. An oft-referenced passage in Herodotus from the 5th century BC tells us that ancient Persians would not make an important decision until considering it both drunk and sober. There are much more recent anecdotal instances when this method proved useful. The SALT treaty negotiated by Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, for example, was a pretty good deal all around, and the Persians would have approved of the way alcohol infused its negotiation as related in Kissinger’s White House Years. But is there any study of the question that is a bit more scientific? Yes, a bit.

At a bar in Grenoble France researchers approached drunken patrons and asked them to fill out a questionnaire on matters of philosophy. Perhaps this sort of occurrence is less strange in Grenoble than in New York or Chicago, because more than one hundred patrons did it.  (See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027714001875) The questions included ethical dilemmas such as the classic trolley and bridge questions which, simplified, ask if you would kill one innocent person to save 5. (Assume no negative consequences to you, legal or otherwise.) Drunks are far more likely to be OK with offing the one in utilitarian fashion. In fact, they are much more coldly logical all around in ethical matters than sober folks. This is curious, since we commonly associate drunkenness with emotionality. Apparently all that emoting is self-centered. The outpourings are about the drunk’s own hates, loves, desires, and fears. With regard to other people the inebriated are surprisingly hardheaded in all sorts of ways. So, the Persians might have been onto something.

Drunks may be logical, which is a counterintuitive result, but one may ask if there is any verity to “In vino veritas,” an intuitive supposition already ancient when Pliny the Elder referenced it in Naturalis Historia. Are drunks really honest? Yes and no. They are less inhibited. So, they blurt out what otherwise they might keep to themselves. To that extent they are more honest. However, when it is in their interest to lie – as when stopped by police – there are few liars as inspired as drunks. Many of the greatest novelists have been heavy drinkers, and fiction, after all, is a kind of lying. The degree to which they are more honest probably shouldn’t be counted in their favor anyway. Honesty, despite its reputation, is not always a virtue; the trouble with truths, especially when spoken by the intoxicated, is that they frequently are unkind, inappropriate, or both.

Of course, one could simply stay sober and retain the ability to cushion the sharp edges of one’s commentary with paddings of prevarication. I, for one, stumble into inappropriateness often enough as it is, so this is a better choice for me. If that means being less logical, well, every choice comes at a cost.

Hesher (2010): Inappropriate but honest eulogy

Friday, November 7, 2014

Double Doses

Mini-reviews of six midnight home double-features follow. I’ve continued my lately acquired pattern of pairing a newly viewed film with an older one of which the first reminded me.

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Factotum (2005) – Charles Bukowski is one of those writers who is very good at what he does, but who leaves a disagreeable aftertaste. Ultimately, the problem is snobbery. Snobbery is not confined to the upper classes. There is a working class version. There also is the snobbery of the bad boy who looks down his nose at anyone less hard-drinking and hell-raising. Bukowski is no stranger to both kinds. For all that, he remains a good read. The movie Factotum, based on Bukowski’s book of the same title, shares many of the book’s faults and virtues. Hank Chinaski, played by Matt Dillon, is a thinly veiled version of Bukowski himself. Hank is a commercially unsuccessful writer who spends his life drinking, gambling, and womanizing, inevitably with women who also have drinking problems. Just to earn the bare minimum amount to live, Hank works at a series of meaningless menial jobs though he always gets fired for drinking or slacking. About his writing, though, he has artistic integrity. In short he is a drunk with literary pretentions. The movie leaves a disagreeable aftertaste. For all that, it is a good watch.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – When asked to name my all-time favorite movie, I’ll give one of several answers according to my mood, but The Philadelphia Story always is in the running. Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) has divorced Dexter (Cary Grant) after a short tempestuous marriage, and now plans to marry the self-made nouveau riche George (John Howard), who lacks not only the easy grace of old money but its relaxed morality. In fact, George is steeped in out-of-place bourgeois values. A tabloid newspaper sends reporter Macaulay and photographer Elizabeth (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to cover the high society marriage.

How could a film centered on the romances of the uber-rich possibly have been called to mind by Factotum? It was Jimmy Stewart’s role. The sometimes drunken writer Macaulay is so self-satisfied in his disdain for the privileged class that Tracy calls him out for being a snob: “You're the worst kind there is. An intellectual snob. You made up your mind awfully young, it seems to me.” Throw in a precocious younger sister to Tracy, an ebrious old uncle with a taste for chorus girls, and dialogue that is intelligent, sophisticated, and funny, and you have a movie classic.

** ** ** ** **

Neighbors (2014) – Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne) have a new baby and new neighbors in their suburban neighborhood. The neighbors are a college fraternity with a reputation for legendary parties. The frat’s leader arranges a modus vivendi with the couple; the Radners agree to voice complaints directly to him instead of to the police, and he agrees to take any complaints seriously. When no one answers the frat’s phone during one noisy party-night, however, Mac calls the police anyway. Feeling betrayed, the frat boys retaliate. The feud escalates. Given the actors and the premise, you probably have a pretty good idea of what sort of comedy this is. You’re right. The pervasive potty humor is tiresome rather than offensive, but I have to assume it resonates with much of the intended audience. There are some genuinely funny moments. Nonetheless, on balance I’m not the right viewer for this movie. You might not be either.

Neighbors (1981) – Starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in their heyday, this film was not very well received at the time of its release. Yet it has aged well. Off-beat, bizarre, and very 1980s, the whole thing has an undertow of appeal. Belushi is a quiet suburbanite living with his family at the isolated end of a cul-de-sac that backs up to a swamp. The new neighbors (Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty) add a new dimension to the word eccentric. Their weird and seemingly dangerous behavior evokes paranoia in Belushi. They also apparently have an open relationship which offers a challenge and temptation to Belushi and his lifestyle. If you like your films a little bit odd, this qualifies. I definitely like it more now than on first viewing in 1981.

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Visioneers (2008) – In a surreal dystopia, George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis) is a “tunt” (drone) in the conglomerate Jeffers Corporation, which has risen to economic dominance through the shallow philosophy of Mr. Jeffers. Even drones in this productivity-minded future live in large beautiful homes, drive nice cars, and have no shortage of material goods. Nonetheless, their jobs and lifestyles are so dehumanizing that many literally explode. Efforts by the corporation and the government to combat the epidemic of explosions only worsen matters.

The film has its moments, but even as a comedic premise the notion that prosperity itself is dehumanizing is a little specious. Visioneers was made before the Crash of 2008 after which many folks would have risked explosion to be secure in prosperity. At any level of wealth, life is as shallow as one chooses to make it. However, the work environment depicted in Visioneers truly is dreadful and vision is precisely what Mr. Jeffers lacks.

Daisies (1966) – Directed by Věra Chytilová this surreal Czech film was banned in it its own country until 1975. Two young women, both named Marie, apparently decide that the only reasonable way to live in a corrupt world is to revel in the corruption. Whether this is shallow, deep, or somehow both is hard to say. They indulge their appetites and play pranks. They destroy a room where a sumptuous feast is laid out. They survive a dunking but shouldn’t have played with the chandelier. Strange, but intriguing.

** ** ** ** **

Divergent (2013) – Yes, it’s another dystopia based on another YA novel series in which another teen young woman is the hope for the future. Chicago is walled off from the outside world and is run by five factions. Members of each especially exhibit one of five virtues. 16-year-olds are tested to reveal their biological predisposition toward one of the five. Those who exhibit a multitude of predispositions are called “divergent” and are outcasts. In the movie it is not clear whether the wall is to keep the Chicagoans in or others out. Is Chicago a safe place or a prison? From the books by Veronica Roth (and presumably in the upcoming movie sequels) we can learn that a number of cities have been sealed off with the plan of undoing a genetic engineering program that went wrong. Undoing the program requires creating divergents, i.e. normal human beings, not eliminating them as the factions are doing. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is a divergent; this fact shows up in her test, but her examiner is a rebel who falsifies the result to protect her. Beatrice joins the Dauntless faction which positions her to resist a power grab by the Erudite faction who would (among other evils) hunt down the divergents.

The movie is not actually terrible, but if you’re going to pick just one dystopia with a rebellious teen, stick with The Hunger Games.

Untamed Youth (1957) – There is no doubt who is a prisoner in this teen exploitation flick. In a rural area Judge Cecelia Steele is secretly married to agricultural magnate Russ Tropp. She ensures he gets cheap agricultural labor by convicting teens and passing travelers of minor offenses and then sentencing them to work on Tropp’s farm. Penny (Mamie Van Doren) and Jane (Lori Nelson) are convicted of skinny-dipping and hitchhiking, which puts a crimp in their plan to enter show business. They are sent to the farm. The judge’s son opts to work at the farm as a supervisor subordinate to Tropp, but doesn’t like what he sees – except for Jane. He likes her. He and Jane hope to overthrow the corrupt system, but will the judge side with sonny or hubby? Penny meanwhile sings songs and looks busty. Untamed Youth is trash, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.               

** ** ** ** **

Horns (2013) – Though listed on IMDB as 2013, Horns was released both to theaters and pay-per-view only last month. Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) is falsely accused of having murdered his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) whom he has loved since childhood. We see their relationship in flashbacks. Nearly the whole town thinks he did it despite the insufficiency of evidence to charge him with the crime. To his own dismay, Ig starts to grow horns. They have the effect of causing people to tell him their darkest thoughts; people also do what Ig tells them. They somehow forget the horns when they look away and forget what they said and did while under their influence. He uses this ability to discover what really happened that night. I don’t normally like movies with supernatural elements, but this one was odd enough to be interesting.

D.O.A. (1988) – This is a remake of a 1950 noir with Edmund O’Brien. The original isn’t bad, but in this case I like the remake better. Dexter (Dennis Quaid) is an English professor whose wife is divorcing him. After a night of far too much alcohol, he wakes up in the dorm room of young co-ed Meg Ryan. He sneaks out but feels worse than just hung-over, so he stops by the hospital and discovers he has been poisoned irreversibly.  On top of this, he is falsely accused of having murdered his wife. He is then accused of other murders. He has little time to discover the truth so he snares Meg Ryan and retraces his steps the night he was poisoned. Surprisingly good.

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He Was a Quiet Man (2007) – The title comes from the litany of comments we always seem to hear about a multiple killer. You know them from journalists’ interviews with neighbors and co-workers. We all do. “He was a quiet man. Very polite. He seemed so nice. He always said ‘good morning’ to me. A bit of a loner.” And so on. Those words describe Bob Maconel, perfectly played by Christian Slater. Bob is an office worker with a dreary job and every reason to hate his co-workers and immediate superiors. He is also schizophrenic and has conversations with his goldfish – they answer back. Day after day he loads and unloads his gun at his cubicle, waiting for the moment and the courage to kill his co-workers and himself; he exempts Venessa from his intended targets because she has a nice smile. At the end of one day exceptionally full of degrading treatment, he appears ready to follow through as he loads his revolver. He drops a bullet and, as he reaches down for it, shots are fired. Bodies drop to the floor. Another worker has gone postal first. Venessa is among the shot, but is still alive. Bob empathizes with the shooter, of course, and intervenes only because the fellow is about to finish off Venessa. Bob kills the shooter and finds that he is a hero instead of the dead villain he expected to be. When he visits Venessa in the hospital, though, he finds that she has been left quadriplegic. She asks him to end her life. Bob has to decide how to handle her request and his new notoriety. This is a twisted tale and all too credible. Thumbs up.

Heathers (1988)He Was a Quiet Man inevitably reminded me of Heathers, a dark teen comedy starring a much younger Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. Slater plays J.D., which are unsubtle initials even though this slang for juvenile delinquent was 20 years out of date by 1988. J.D. espouses a nihilistic might-is-right philosophy, and assists the rise of Veronica (Ryder) in HS society by killing off the cooler kids. He makes the murders look like suicides. J.D.’s inclinations run in the family. J.D.’s father owns a demolition company, and it is strongly implied that years earlier he had arranged a fatal accident on a job site for J.D.’s mother. Veronica eventually has second thoughts about murder for social advancement and breaks with J.D., but this just puts her in his sights as he plans to blow up the high school. Also thumbs up: wicked, funny, and classic 80s.

** ** ** ** **


Monday, November 3, 2014

Kinks in the Jinx

The magazines and periodicals in a waiting areas instantly tell you something about the person you’re waiting to see. The waiting room of my previous dentist (he retired) was heavy on news magazines: The Economist, Newsweek, US News & World Report, and so on. The current one has a mix of lifestyle and science magazines: Esquire, Travel, Scientific American, et al. My lawyer’s waiting area tilts toward aviation, e.g. Plane & Pilot.  The barber shop I’ve patronized for decades offers local newspapers, Car & Driver, and Sports Illustrated.

I normally choose a newspaper while waiting for the barber, but while I awaited my turn a couple days ago I couldn’t help noticing the Sports Illustrated cover. No, it wasn’t the issue of which you are thinking. It was the recent one with relief pitcher Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals lost the World Series after that issue. Though it is well known to dedicated sports fans, I became aware of the so-called Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx only a few months ago. It was mentioned in a brief news report about the magazine’s 60th anniversary. In the very first issue dated August 16, 1954, Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews appeared on the cover. The Braves’ winning streak immediately ended and Mathews broke his hand.

While many people and teams since 1954 have suffered no ill effects after appearing on the cover  – at least not in a reasonable time period – the list of those who have is long and eerie. Appearances have preceded losing streaks by golfers, skiers, quarterbacks, boxers, tennis players, and others; there have been fatalities soon after appearances such as Laurence Owen who died with the rest of the US figure skating team in a 1961 plane crash and several race car drivers, Dale Earnhardt in 2000 among them. Is this putative jinx just a matter of readers cherry picking bad events while ignoring good ones after cover appearances? Probably there is some of that. Yet there is a pattern of lower performance by objective standards (fewer points, slower times, or whatever) after appearances that is statistically significant. It’s not a reliable predictor in any one case, but it’s enough to alter the bets of professional sports gamblers. There is an explanation for this that has nothing to do with jinxes.

Back in 1886 Sir Francis Galton, a cousin to Charles Darwin, published the dryly titled article Regression Towards Mediocrity in Hereditary Stature. He demonstrated that the children of tall parents are likely to be shorter than their parents – still taller than the general population, but shorter than their parents. This is not an intuitive result, but it makes sense if one thinks about it. Height and other physical traits typically fall on a bell curve, with most people clustered around average. Numerous genetic and environmental factors determine height, so the mix that a child gets from his parents just by the odds should be closer to the mean than toward the tails of the curve. Galton’s “regression toward the mean” occurs not just in height but in activities including investing, baking, and sports. Take a hypothetical golfer who averages a score of 70: her performances also fall on a bell curve. On most days she is within a few points of 70, but occasionally she’ll have a bad day of 80 or a really good day of 63. In either case, odds are her next day will be closer to 70. But when will she appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated? After the 63 – more likely after a streak of low 60s, which is also a statistically expected occurrence. Naturally she is likely to do worse after the appearance – to regress toward the mean. It makes sense to bet accordingly.

Maybe there is hope for the New York Jets this season yet.

Rory Gallagher – Jinxed