Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

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Friday, May 16, 2003

This site is cool, but it's never fully lived up to its potential. Then again, I'll probably never think it's lived up to its potential until I've invented a word or phrase, found a sneaky way to get it into print, and seen it cited there.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Those of you who know me well are probably aware that I haven't had a fantastic week. (Let's just say that it isn't pleasant to discover that the dissertation topic you're planning to work on has recently been written about!) I've been wondering exactly how badly things are going on a broader level, and now I think I know, thanks to the Rapture Index.

I'm trying to decide which indicators I'd include if I were to design a rapture index of my own, but I haven't had any good ideas. I like the idea of a "quizbowl rapture index" (tracking various categories of eschatological activity that could indicate the end of the quizbowl world as we know it), but I'll refrain from mentioning any of the end-of-the-circuit indicators that leap to mind. After all, I can never be sure who might be reading this blog...

Oral history documents can be oddly fascinating. So can presidential sex scandals.

A lot of questions occurred to me as I read this interview, in which a White House staffer from the Kennedy administration describes the president's relationship to an intern. Are presidents naturally attracted to bitchy women who, say, whine when they don't get time off? Why does the interviewee refer to the woman in question as a "little girl"? (Is this a sign that the intern was really immature? That gender views were sufficiently different in 1964 that female college students were seen as "little girls"? That the interviewee was making a moral judgment about the president and his choice of love interests?) Is the interviewee as clueless as she sounds? ("I often liked to think that as far as the president was concerned, he indulged in this all sort of vicariously and it was fun to have pretty girls around, and it was fun to watch his staff sort of make fools of themselves, but I don't really know.") Is everyone else kind of creeped out by the interviewee's description of intern-intern relations (and attitudes to the president) as "a marvelous example of sharing"?

I suppose this shouldn't have come as a surprise to me, but Geraldo Rivera has an interesting mind. Yesterday The Washington Post's gossip column reported on his upcoming wedding, noting that the ceremony would be Rivera's first "church" wedding. "I'm making a conscious decision to take this whole Judaism thing seriously," Geraldo said. "I think the Jews need me right now."

Perhaps I shouldn't read too much into that last sentence--if Geraldo's known for anything, he's famous for making random self-aggrandizing comments and outrageous non sequiturs--but I can't help but be amused. Is there any group out there that doesn't need Mr. Rivera these days? (He'd bring a lot of publicity to any group he wanted to join.) I'd find it really amusing if he'd, say, become a scholar of Soviet history or a professional volleyball player. In fact, about the only thing I'd object to him doing is pretending to be a journalist--which, unfortunately, is what people have been paying him to do for quite a while...

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Last night, as I was reading an article on Kim Jong Il, I asked myself a question: are dictators more likely than the rest of us to have had elaborate alternate career plans? Kim is often said to have wanted to be a movie director or a film critic. (I wonder how his reviews would compare to Roger Ebert's...) Manuel Noriega wanted to be a psychiatrist. Fidel Castro had designs of becoming a star baseball player. Bashar Assad used to work as an opthalmologist.

Maybe we're just more likely to know random personal details about brutal dictators: if one of my professors had always wanted to be a trapeze artist, for example, I doubt that I'd have any idea. Maybe my sample size is too small: perhaps most dictators plan to become tyrannical politicians from the day they're born and never deviate from that career path. Or maybe Kim Jong Il's bizarre film aspirations are a result of his pampered upbringing as a dictator's son, and Bashar Assad's career as a dictator (and not as an eye doctor) is the abnormal part of his life story. (I believe his older brother was Hafez Assad's heir apparent until his premature death.) I can't help but think that dictators are weird, however, and that the fact that many of them think they could have become really prominent in completely unrelated professions is just another sign of their megalomania and weirdness.

Update: Still more evidence that dictators are weird.

I find this website more amusing than I probably should. It's full of wise analysis, "translated" from original Kucinich campaign position papers into language kids can understand. One example: "If you're worried about the future, and don't want to choke on the air you breathe, gag on the water you have to drink, live in your own filth, and kill all the species on earth except for man and all the mutants we've created, protecting the environment is really important." (My very few readers--if any are left--probably now think I have a weird obsession with mutants!)

I suspect that the Bush campaign will very quickly follow suit, producing its own "Kids for the President" website. After all, they won't even need to translate their position papers into simpler language, since Dubya's speeches are already pretty simplistic.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Back in the days of yore, before I made the transition from starving writer to starving grad student, I worked on the staff of a political magazine called The American Prospect. Recent discussions on the yahoo quizbowl group have reminded me of one of the articles I wrote, a short piece about why more men than women compete on TV shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

I've never been a huge fan of the article, and don't quite approve of the way it was edited (the last paragraph, in particular, still kind of irritates me.) But this was the best-received article I wrote: it's been reprinted in two anthologies, and I even appeared on a New Hampshire talk radio show to talk about the quiz show gender gap. (My first five minutes of fame!) Everyone seems to find this question fascinating, but no one can agree on what the answer to the question really is. My own take is that men, as a whole, aren't dramatically more likely than women to want to participate in academic competitions or trivia contests; instead, the people most likely to want to compete can be categorized into several distinct subgroups, each of which tends to be dominated by men. (One common explanation for the gender gap in quizbowl--that women get scared away by a male-dominated and sometimes-creepy atmosphere--is undoubtedly true in part, but doesn't explain why more men than women are interested in QB to begin with.) Even my explanation is a little simplistic, of course, but I think it comes closer to the truth than most of the other explanations that have been offered.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Last night Susan and I saw X2: X-Men United. It was a fun movie, even for someone (like me) who has never read a comic book and has shaky memories of the first movie. X2 continued to entertain me this morning, when I read some reviews of the movie and was reminded of a question I've sometimes asked myself in the past: is Roger Ebert an idiot?

I hate to admit it, but there was a time when I actually enjoyed reading Ebert's reviews. (There are worse sins, I know, but I'm still kind of ashamed. I guess we all have our faults when we're in high school.) I've looked back in the review archive on his web page, and I still do kind of like some of his old reviews, but even when I agree with his assessment of a movie, I usually find his analysis shallow and unconvincing. I think he spends far too much time trying to be clever, and I'm often irritated by his tendency either to strike a false populist note in his reviews or to try to give his reviews a (supposedly) literary sensibility. (He gives the impression that he likes to think of himself as a well-read person, though I don't get the sense that he especially likes reading books.)

More recently, I've noticed another irritating pattern in Ebert's reviews: he's often extremely sloppy in his recall of factual details. Here's an example from his review of X2:

"Like all the characters in the Marvel Comics stable, the X-Men have psychological or political problems; in the first movie they were faced with genocide, and in this one their right to privacy is violated with the Mutant Registration Act."

Did Ebert see the same movie I did? If I recall correctly--which may be a doubtful proposition, given my advanced age--the movie only mentions mutant registration one or two times. The only example I can think of came soon after the attack on the White House, when someone mentioned that public outrage could result in the return of the mutant registration act. The issue may have been mentioned again, and it's possible that the president's speech dealt with mutant registration (the movie never really explains what he was going to say), but I wouldn't describe mutant registration and the mutants' right to privacy as the major themes of this movie. In fact, genocide--which Ebert sees as the main theme of just the first movie--plays a far more important role. My hunch is that Ebert didn't pay a lot of attention to such minor details of the movie as its plot and instead just looked at some promotional materials that happened to mention mutant registration.

Maybe I'm wrong and the reenactment of the Mutant Registration Act was a more important plot point than I remember. (I'm skeptical of this, though: why try to enact a law dealing with mutant registration when you're simultaneously trying to kill all the mutants?) This error is fairly minor in itself, though I can believe (reading the review) that Ebert never actually watched the movie. Ebert's trouble getting basic facts right is more irritating when it's combined with his other weaknesses as a reviewer.

An example: in his reviews of the first two Lord of the Rings movies, Ebert makes a big deal of the fact that Peter Jackson wasn't true to the feel of the original books. But he admits that he hasn't read the books in a really long time, and makes silly factual mistakes in his own review. If you're going to criticize a director for not being sufficiently faithful to his source material, for example, it's not a good idea to get the name of a major character wrong. (It's "Gollum," not "the Gollum.") I actually agree with some of Ebert's criticisms of the LOTR movies (the characters in the first film, in particular, spent too much time running around between action scenes), but Ebert has trouble judging the films on their own merits and instead seems more concerned about looking like a defender of Tolkien's books.

Similarly, in his X2 review, Ebert tries hard to sound witty, but most of his comments (say, about why a guy whose superpower is the ability to release metal claws is more influential than someone who can control the weather) are the trite sort of analysis you could expect a high school student to come up with. And this guy won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary?