Saturday, May 29, 2004

Lost, Harried and Medicated: That's how I've spent the past few days. Still nursing back spasms, but at least they aren't seriously hindering me anymore. Gotta love those muscle relaxers. It's time for me to devote some serious time to the world of three dimensions, so it'll probably be a couple of weeks unitl you next hear from me. (I know, you haven't been hearing from me that much lately anyway -- I still blame the muscle relaxers.) But I promise to be back with some fresh material in a fortnight or so.
Anyone for Saki?: H.H. Munro, commonly known as Saki, was a brilliant satirst in Edwardian England. Less well known than his comtemporary, Evelyn Waugh, he wrote about the diffident, detached British gentry, often from the point of view of spoiled young wastrels (think of an amoral, cynical Bertie Wooster). He wrote in that beautiful, florid, comically understated prose that English writers employed in the early twentieth century. The good news is that the copyrights have expiried on his work, including his peerless short story collection, the Chroncles of Clovis. My gift you is a taste from that collection, called Tobermory. Enjoy:
It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in security or cold storage, and there is nothing to hunt---unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red stags. Lady Blemley's house-party was not bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some one had said he was "clever," and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay. He was neither a wit nor a croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur theatricals. Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure of mental deficiency. He had subsided into mere Mr. Appin, and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal bluff. And now he was claiming to have launched on the world a discovery beside which the invention of gunpowder, of the printing-press, and of steam locomotion were inconsiderable trifles. Science had made bewildering strides in many directions during recent decades, but this thing seemed to belong to the domain of miracle rather than to scientific achievement.

"And do you really ask us to believe," Sir Wilfrid was saying, "that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?"

"It is a problem at which I have worked for the last seventeen years," said Mr. Appin, "but only during the last eight or nine months have I been rewarded with glimmerings of success. Of course I have experimented with thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts. Here and there among cats one comes across an outstanding superior intellect, just as one does among the ruck of human beings, and when I made the acquaintance of Tobermory a week ago I saw at once that I was in contact with a 'Beyond-cat' of extraordinary intelligence. I had gone far along the road to success in recent experiments; with Tobermory, as you call him, I have reached the goal."

Mr. Appin concluded his remarkable statement in a voice which he strove to divest of a triumphant inflection. No one said "Rats," though Clovis's lips moved in a monosyllabic contortion which probably invoked those rodents of disbelief.

"And do you mean to say," asked Miss Resker, after a slight pause, "that you have taught Tobermory to say and understand easy sentences of one syllable?"

"My dear Miss Resker," said the wonder-worker patiently, "one teaches little children and savages and backward adults in that piecemeal fashion; when one has once solved the problem of making a beginning with an animal of highly developed intelligence one has no need for those halting methods. Tobermory can speak our language with perfect correctness."

This time Clovis very distinctly said, "Beyond-rats!" Sir Wilfrid was more polite, but equally sceptical.

"Hadn't we better have the cat in and judge for ourselves?" suggested Lady Blemley.

Sir Wilfrid went in search of the animal, and the company settled themselves down to the languid expectation of witnessing some more or less adroit drawing-room ventriloquism.

In a minute Sir Wilfrid was back in the room, his face white beneath its tan and his eyes dilated with excitement. "By Gad, it's true!"

His agitation was unmistakably genuine, and his hearers started forward in a thrill of awakened interest.

Collapsing into an armchair he continued breathlessly: "I found him dozing in the smoking-room and called out to him to come for his tea. He blinked at me in his usual way, and I said, 'Come on, Toby; don't keep us waiting'; and, by Gad! he drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he'd come when he dashed well pleased! I nearly jumped out of my skin!"

Appin had preached to absolutely incredulous hearers; Sir Wilfred's statement carried instant conviction. A Babel-like chorus of startled exclamation arose, amid which the scientist sat mutely enjoying the first fruit of his stupendous discovery.

In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across to the group seated round the tea-table.

A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged mental ability.

"Will you have some milk, Tobermory?" asked Lady Blemley in a rather strained voice.

"I don't mind if I do," was the response, couched in a tone of even indifference. A shiver of suppressed excitement went through the listeners, and Lady Blemley might be excused for pouring out the saucerful of milk rather unsteadily.

"I'm afraid I've spilt a good deal of it," she said apologetically.

"After all, it's not my Axminster," was Tobermory's rejoinder.

Another silence fell on the group, and then Miss Resker, in her best district-visitor manner, asked if the human language had been difficult to learn. Tobermory looked squarely at her for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.

"What do you think of human intelligence?" asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

"Of whose intelligence in particular?" asked Tobermory coldly.

"Oh, well, mine for instance," said Mavis, with a feeble laugh.

"You put me in an embarrassing position," said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment. "When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car. You know, the one they call 'The Envy of Sisyphus,' because it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it."

Lady Blemley's protestations would have had greater effect if she had not casually suggested to Mavis only that morning that the car in question would be just the thing for her down at her Devonshire home.

Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion.

"How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?"

The moment he had said it every one realized the blunder.

"One does not usually discuss these matters in public," said Tobermory frigidly. "From a slight observation of your ways since you've been in this house I should imagine you'd find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs."

The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major.

"Would you like to go and see if cook has got your dinner ready?" suggested Lady Blemley hurriedly, affecting to ignore the fact that it wanted at least two hours to Tobermory's dinner-time.

"Thanks," said Tobermory, "not quite so soon after my tea. I don't want to die of indigestion."

"Cats have nine lives, you know," said Sir Wilfrid heartily.

"Possibly", answered Tobermory; "but only one liver."

"Adelaide!" said Mrs. Cornett, "do you mean to encourage that cat to go out and gossip about us in the servants' hall?"

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons---and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don't necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the Exchange and Mart as a species of hush-money.

Even in a delicate situation like the present, Agnes Resker could not endure to remain too long in the background.

"Why did I ever come down here?" she asked dramatically.

Tobermory immediately accepted the opening.

"Judging by what you said to Mrs. Cornett on the croquet-lawn yesterday, you were out for food. You described the Blemleys as the dullest people to stay with that you knew, but said they were clever enough to employ a first-rate cook; otherwise they'd find it difficult to get any one to come down a second time."

"There's not a word of truth in it! I appeal to Mrs. Cornett---" exclaimed the discomfited Agnes.

"Mrs. Cornett repeated your remark afterwards to Bertie van Tahn," continued Tobermory, "and said, 'That woman is a regular Hunger Marcher; she'd go anywhere for four square meals a day,' and Bertie van Tahn said---"

At this point the chronicle mercifully ceased. Tobermory had caught a glimpse of the big yellow Tom from the Rectory working his way through the shrubbery towards the stable wing. In a flash he had vanished through the open French window.

With the disappearance of his too brilliant pupil Cornelius Appin found himself beset by a hurricane of bitter upbraiding, anxious inquiry, and frightened entreaty. The responsibility for the situation lay with him, and he must prevent matters from becoming worse. Could Tobermory impart his dangerous gift to other cats? was the first question he had to answer. It was possible, he replied, that he might have initiated his intimate friend the stable puss into his new accomplishment, but it was unlikely that his teaching could have taken a wider range as yet.

"Then," said Mrs. Cornett, "Tobermory may be a valuable cat and a great pet; but I'm sure you'll agree, Adelaide, that both he and the stable cat must be done away with without delay."

"You don't suppose I've enjoyed the last quarter of an hour, do you?" said Lady Blemley bitterly. "My husband and I are very fond of Tobermory---at least, we were before this horrible accomplishment was infused into him; but now, of course, the only thing is to have him destroyed as soon as possible."

"We can put some strychnine in the scraps he always gets at dinner-time," said Sir Wilfrid, "and I will go and drown the stable cat myself. The coachman will be very sore at losing his pet, but I'll say a very catching form of mange has broken out in both cats and we're afraid of its spreading to the kennels."

"But my great discovery!" expostulated Mr. Appin; "after all my years of research and experiment---"

"You can go and experiment on the short-horns at the farm, who are under proper control," said Mrs. Cornett, "or the elephants at the Zoological Gardens. They're said to be highly intelligent, and they have this recommendation, that they don't come creeping about our bedrooms and under chairs, and so forth."

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement. Public opinion, however, was against him---in fact, had the general voice been consulted on the subject it is probable that a strong minority vote would have been in favour of including him in the strychnine diet.

Defective train arrangements and a nervous desire to see matters brought to a finish prevented an immediate dispersal of the party, but dinner that evening was not a social success. Sir Wilfrid had had rather a trying time with the stable cat and subsequently with the coachman. Agnes Resker ostentatiously limited her repast to a morsel of dry toast, which she bit as though it were a personal enemy; while Mavis Pellington maintained a vindictive silence throughout the meal. Lady Blemley kept up a flow of what she hoped was conversation, but her attention was fixed on the doorway. A plateful of carefully dosed fish scraps was in readiness on the sideboard, but sweets and savoury and dessert went their way, and no Tobermory appeared either in the dining-room or kitchen.

The sepulchral dinner was cheerful compared with the subsequent vigil in the smoking-room. Eating and drinking had at least supplied a distraction and cloak to the prevailing embarrassment. Bridge was out of the question in the general tension of nerves and tempers, and after Odo Finsberry had given a lugubrious rendering of "Mélisande in the Wood" to a frigid audience, music was tacitly avoided. At eleven the servants went to bed, announcing that the small window in the pantry had been left open as usual for Tobermory's private use. The guests read steadily through the current batch of magazines, and fell back gradually on the "Badminton Library" and bound volumes of Punch. Lady Blemley made periodic visits to the pantry, returning each time with an expression of listless depression which forestalled questioning.

At two o'clock Clovis broke the dominating silence.

"He won't turn up tonight. He's probably in the local newspaper office at the present moment, dictating the first instalment of his reminiscences. Lady What's-her-name's book won't be in it. It will be the event of the day."

Having made this contribution to the general cheerfulness, Clovis went to bed. At long intervals the various members of the house-party followed his example.

The servants taking round the early tea made a uniform announcement in reply to a uniform question. Tobermory had not returned.

Breakfast was, if anything, a more unpleasant function than dinner had been, but before its conclusion the situation was relieved. Tobermory's corpse was brought in from the shrubbery, where a gardener had just discovered it. From the bites on his throat and the yellow fur which coated his claws it was evident that he had fallen in unequal combat with the big Tom from the Rectory.

By midday most of the guests had quitted the Towers, and after lunch Lady Blemley had sufficiently recovered her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet.

Tobermory had been Appin's one successful pupil, and he was destined to have no successor. A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim's name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered Cornelius.

"If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast," said Clovis, "he deserved all he got."
Who Made You Fat?: Morgan Spurlock ate three meals a day at McDonalds for a month, and answered yes whenever he was asked if he wanted to super-size his meal. His reasons were twofold. 1) To make a point about how bad fast food is for you and how evil McDonalds is for trying to sell it to you, and 2) To create a documentary about his experiences. I have not seen the documentary, but I have read a good deal about it including an article by Spurlock himself, in the latest (June '04) issue of Men’s Health, in which he summarizes his story and conclusions (no link, sorry).

In the course of this exercise Spurlock occasionally consumed as much as 5000 calories a day (twice what he would need to maintain his weight), often eating until he was sick. He comes out the other end of the month fat and unhealthy beyond all reason.

A sample of a daily menu:
Egg McMuffin
Hash Browns
Orange Juice

Big Mac
Large Fries
Large Coke
Chocolate Shake

Two Cheeseburgers
Medium Fries
Medium Sprite

Total (per Men's Health): 3833 calories and an ungodly amount of salt, fat and cholesterol.

Now, I am between 5'9 and 5'10, and between 170 and 175 pounds. I don't think I could force myself to shovel that quantity of food down my throat. That is beyond extreme. If you eat that much food everyday you likely have serious psychological issues beyond just habitual overeating. Blaming this on McDonalds (as a proxy for the fast food industry) is rather disingenuous.

An alternative, more reasonable three meals a day at McDonalds might look something like this:

Egg McMuffin
Hash Browns
Black Coffee

Fish Filet
Medium Fries
Diet Coke (medium)
Vanilla ice cream cone

Chicken McGrill
Medium Fries
Diet Coke (medium)

Totals (source):
2090 calories
88% of the daily recommendation of saturated fat
122% of the daily recommendation of cholesterol (mostly due to the Egg McMuffin)
141% of the daily recommendation of sodium

Still not particularly healthy, but even a mildly active person my size wouldn’t gain weight or be deathly ill by the end of a month. And yes, because of the sodium, you wouldn't want to eat this if you had high blood pressure; and you’ll want to swap out the Egg McMuffin for something lower in cholesterol now and then; but throw in a multi-vitamin each morning and you’re probably OK for a 30-day period.

But even with this more reasonable menu, the fact is that nobody eats three meals a day at McDonalds. Spurlock would no doubt agree that nobody actually does this; he's just trying to make a point. Unfortunately his eating binge doesn't make it. Taking an activity, any activity, to an unhealthy extreme doesn't make a point about the bad effects the activity; all you do is make a point about the bad effects of taking things to an unhealthy extreme.

I eat a good deal of fast food, probably more than I should, and I probably eat at McDonalds twice a week, just for convenience sake (it's just down the corner from work). My cholesterol is just fine. I actually have low blood pressure and, nobody would accuse me of being overweight. I’m glad for McDonalds. I benefit from the convenience. I just don't shovel the stuff down my throat like that, and when asked if I wanted my meal super sized I’d say, "No thanks."

Which gets to the next point. When Spurlock visited McDonalds one of his rules was that if he was asked whether he wanted to Super Size his meal, he had to say yes:

It's not really the burgers and fries I'm worried about, it's the amounts they push, and the amounts we eat.

The implication is that the suggestive sell is what causes people to eat more. It’s the old corporate mind control argument. The supposition is that through the effective use of advertising and promotion and suggestive selling, you are connived into doing something you really don't want to do.

Fast-food chains say their offerings are "sometime" foods and that they're "part of a balanced diet"...You never hear one of these "restaurants" tell you how often you should eat their food...

Oh dear. Are we all such weak minded gluttons that we need to be told how often it is safe to eat fast food? This argument has always smacked of a certain arrogance and condescension, as if the writer is wise enough to see through something that the average schmoe is too dull to comprehend. I could accept the argument that the average consumer might fall for it once or twice, but super-sizing once or twice before you catch on isn’t going to make you obese. You have to keep doing all the time.

Instead of fretting about suggestive selling and advertising, I suppose you could make the argument that the widespread increase in portion size across the board is the culprit. That assumes a person who orders French fries will eat the entire order no matter the size, rather than just the amount that satiates hunger. But if that were the case, as soon as you saw your gut drooping over your belt you would think you'd know enough to stop. In no McDonalds that I know of is it a requirement that you eat every morsel of food on your tray.

Doubtless there is a correlation between increasing food portions and increasing waistlines. But correlation is not causality. Portion size has been increasing for many, many years. I remember when there was no such thing as a quarter-pounder, never mind super-sizing. McDonalds is just a corporation, which is to say they will follow where the market takes them to get the profits. My memory may be faulty, but I seem to remember McDonalds starting the quarter-pounder in response to the Whopper from Burger King and the gigantic burgers from a new kid on the block called Wendy’s. Similarly their recent abandoning of super-sizing and the addition of salads to the menu is following on the heels of Subway’s very successful health oriented ad campaign featuring Jared (despite the fact that Spurlock claims credit for this). It is by no means clear that increasing portion size came first and appetites followed. This has been a very long term process and it's more likely that McDonalds followed the market -- that is their business after all. This is another key point: Everyone knows overeating is unhealthy yet they have continued to do it, despite the fact that alternative choices are available. To say it continues because McDonalds makes it convenient is, once again, to suggest that people are not in control of their decisions.

Here's a possibility that I have yet to see investigated. The average adult weight has actually been increasing steadily for decades -- I have read studies that seem to indicate things started getting bad in the '70s. That probably coincides with the gradual increase in portion size. But it also coincides with the long decline of cigarette smoking. Is it not possible that by abandoning the appetite suppressant of cigarettes we have left ourselves more susceptible to overeating? I have no data, it's just a thought. Perhaps Spurlock will do a sequel wherein he takes up smoking and then sees if he resist the hypnotic suggestive selling by the greasy teenager behind the counter.

It's a worn out old pose to take. Find some societal ill and label the supplier as evil. It can be fast food, violent video games, Spuds Mackenzie, SUV manufacturers, you name it; you'll be very popular. But supply invariably finds a way to meet demand -- cases in point: prohibition, the war on drugs, pirated MP3s. And while it's unlikely that super-sized meals would appear on the black market, it is entirely probable that people would just order twice as much of the smaller portions, say two cheeseburgers and fries instead of a quarter-pounder and fries, or maybe just hit the candy machine at work more often.

That is where Spurlock's thesis falls down. The only real way to fight overeating -- or any other self-destructive behavior -- is on the demand side. By blaming the fast food industry and providing a convenient excuse for the face-stuffers, Spurlock undermines the only possible solution: Personal responsibility.

Friday, May 21, 2004

It Pours: I've got to hurry this cuz there are monster thunderstorms in the distance, and since the power grid around here is put together with twist ties, I expect to lose power any minute.

Sometimes you can't find a single interesting link out on the web and sometime they pour out like salt from a blue Morton's salt canister with a little girl in a raincoat on it. Is that too obscure?
Dream a Little Dream: Judging from what I've read and heard here and there, a lot of folks were disappointed by the extended dream sequence in last Sunday's episode of The Sopranos. Some thought it was overly pretentious, or gimmicky, or simply inane. They're wrong; it was, in fact, a very daring piece of drama.

Generally, when an extended dream sequence appears in drama, it is wholly self-indulgent and laced with bizarre imagery that has little or no reason for existing other than the writers were running out of ideas and sat around and said, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if..." You get a bunch of strange images and possibly even psychedelic special effects and in the end, all you come away with is a wasted third act and a few stills that look cool in promotional commercials. Not so in this case. This dream sequence was outstanding for the exact reason that despite having logical incoherency, it was completely coherent dramatically.

The main theme snaking through the whole thing was Tony's knowledge that he will, in all likelihood, have to whack is lifelong friend, Tony B. This is an enormous conflict for Tony, not just because the characters are so close, but because of the guilt he feels over Tony B.'s long incarceration which he simply lucked out of because of his own flawed psyche. In his vain, subconscious attempts to justify his upcoming evil work as necessary or unavoidable, we get an extended tour of Tony's character.

First, Tony finds himself in bed with the deceased Carmine, who states that he is suffering in the afterlife, and tells Tony he's got a job for him; the implication is that he must whack Tony B. Carmine is representative of the time when there was an orderly relationship with the New York family. This indicates to Tony that this is the way to restore things back to the way they were. Message: Whacking Tony B. is required to prevent an inter-family war hanging over everyone's head. You have no choice.

Suddenly Tony is talking to his shrink except his shrink is not Dr. Melfi, but his mother (who Tony blames for his hateful life), represented by Annabella Sciorra, one of Tony's mistresses from an earlier season. After some odd dialogue she poignantly says she died before she could have children. Message: You want to blame the need to kill your best friend on your mother, but how long can you continue to do that now that she's dead.

After a few more scenes, his children come into play. Tony's teeth are falling out and he needs a dentist, and we are presented with Meadows fiance, Finn (an aspiring dentist). Does Tony draw a parallel between rescuing his lost teeth and Finn rescuing his daughter from her mob background? But then Finn's parents accuse Finn of slackerhood and Tony is put in mind of AJ. Message: Your kids are still depending on you for survival and welfare. You can't let things get out of control for their sake as much as yours.

Tony is distracted by Finn's parents. His father is a corrupt cop who Tony used in n earlier season. His mother is Annette Benning (played by Annette Benning). Tony and Finn's father leave to hit the bathroom. Both Carmella and Annette Benning mention that they don't want their husband to "come out of there with just his c*ck in their hand" and when Tony enters a stall he checks for a hidden gun in the toilet, just like Michael Corleone, but there is none - all this is, of course, a reference to The Godfather. Later in the sequence Finn's father asks Tony about the job he has to do (whacking Tony B.). Tony says he's done his homework and pulls out a copy of the Valachi Papers. Message: You are in the mob. You're a made man and will behave like one and get your dirty work finished.

Outside, Tony B. has just committed the fatal whacking, the one that will cause Tony to have to whack him in turn. A 'mob' of people are standing around. In time they question why Tony did not stop it and why he doesn't kill Tony B. Tony makes the excuse that he has no piece (no gun). This does little good and Tony finds himself being chased through the streets by the mob. Message: No excuses. No talking your way out of it. If you don't get your job done, the mob will get you. You are helpless.

In the process of escaping the mob, Tony ends up in bed, having sex with Artie's ex-wife, Charmaine, who he maintains a nostalgic attraction to -- they were involved when they were teenagers -- and generally sees as a possible Carmella substitute. Suddenly, Tony is sitting on a horse (Pie-oh-my?) the living room of his house telling Carmella he wants to get back together. She tells him there are some rules he will have to follow, including don't bring you horse (whores?) in the house. Tony protests weakly. Message: The refuge of your wife and home life is gone too, and it's your own fault for thinking with the little head. There's no escape for you there either.

Lastly we get the most riveting scene, where Tony confronts his former football coach. The coach has no fear of or respect for Tony. He looks at the gun Tony is holding and calls it "a bigger dingus that the one God gave you." He alludes that Tony could have been a great leader but has wasted his life and is a pathetic failure. He sneers at the idea of Tony in therapy. He tells Tony to get on with what he was going to do -- which is kill his coach. The coach, of course, is Tony's conscience and he's going to have to kill his conscience if he is ever going to be able to whack Tony B. As he takes aim at the coach, the bullets slip out of the gun to the floor and crumble in his fingers as he tries to pick them up.

There's a lot more to the dream than I mentioned, I'm sure even having see it twice I missed a lot. And it's certain that there could be varying interpretations, but any reasonable interpretation would have to acknowledge that dream sequence wonderfully intertwines every aspect of Tony's state of mind with the pre-existing situation with Tony B. Tony loves his family and friends, but he cannot separate them from his mob life. They suffer because of it and Tony, although he consistently rationalizes it away, is beginning to see how the horrible things he does affect them so tragically. The whacking of Tony B. (if it comes) will be the most blatant evidence of this; it's possible Tony sees it as an act from which he can never recover -- the final death of his conscience. He searches his past for a reason things turned out like this, makes plenty of excuses, but always carries the fugitive notion that it's finally his own doing.

In drama, or any form of fiction, the most important thing is to dramatize (no surprise there). That is to say, you should never directly explain your character's feelings and motivations. Such things should be revealed indirectly through action whenever possible. The effect of this is to draw the audience in as a participant -- an idea that has been discovered by the consumer is much more powerful than one that has been explained to him. Using a dream sequence takes that to an extreme; it puts a larger burden on the audience to make the important conceptual connections between the dream and the "real world". With a sequence as complex as this one, it may take multiple viewings (reruns and TIVO to the rescue). It's a big risk. The writers have to be good enough to choose the right words and symbols to convey the underlying message without the framework of "reality"; everything has to be within the framework of the dreamer's mind. The audience has to be knowledgeable of the character's pre-existing conflicts and thoughtful and diligent enough to close the communication loop.

That's a lot to ask of an audience. I certainly don't make a habit of parking myself in front of the TV with the intent of being thoughtful and diligent. But if I do put the effort in I expect to be rewarded. I was. And I applaud HBO for taking the big risk when every other network would have just asked for car chase or a gory murder.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Back Off: It seems like I am endlessly complaining about my health. First it was the bio-terror attack that laid me out for a couple of days a while back. Then I was battling a head cold (a battle I won, by the way -- it never got past the early stages). Now I have vicious back spasms to deal with. I have gotten back spasms occasionally over the years but these were pretty bad. So my doc wrote me a script for some muscle relaxers.

Long time readers will remember that I was previous given to preventative, regular visits to the chiropractor. That ended partly because I was too time consuming, and partly because my current insurance no longer covers it unless my primary physician advises it. It is very unusual for a physician to ever recommend a chiropractor, since the two industries tend to be at odds. If anything a physician will recommend a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy) if some manipulation needs to be done. So I suppose it is possible that if I had continued with the chiropractor this would never have happened. It’s also possible it had nothing to do with anything -- like I said, I have a history of this.

Anyway, all this is pretty much apropos of nothing. But if my posts start to lean over to the incoherent side, blame it on the muscle relaxers.

Coming soon are a couple HBO articles. One on the extended dream sequence on last Sunday's Sopranos (so it had better be done soon), and another on Deadwood, now that I have discovered what it is about.

For now, a short stack of links:
  • Men's Journal selects the 50 Best Places To Live in their June issue. Here's a preview. They aren’t posting the full list. I agree with the selection of San Diego, but once again, they missed the boat by not including Dexter, MI.

  • Since all the grown-ups I know seem to be refurbishing their homes, check out artistic linoleum if you're feeling creative. When your done, you can redo my bathroom. Thank me later.

  • My Reston crew is in the middle of the emergence of the famed 17 year cicadas, also known as Brood X. I recall being down there in the midst of the previous one 17 years ago. It was insane. Huge, creepy insects everywhere. That horrendous sound they make. Driving down the freeway was like being in a hailstorm of prehistoric bugs. Ick. I think they have it right over at Cicadaville.

  • I can’t think of anything more offensive than a reality show about wife swapping. Yet, here it is. I'm begging all of you to not watch this.

  • Tarantino wants to do a James Bond film, specifically Casino Royale. That might be interesting. (You recall that I reviewed the original Casino Royale novel a while back.) I'm guessing that wouldn't be your standard Bond film. He'd probably work in a lot of Kung-Fu, which gives me an opportunity to link my article about Bond and Chopsocky. Hey, wait a minute. Where do you suppose Taratino got these ideas? Hey, Q-man, nice to know you're reading. Call me. We'll do lunch.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Baltimore Ravin': I spent the last four days in the DC/Baltimore area as I do from time to time. Usually, there is a work reason for these trips and I am fortunate enough that my company allows me to fiddle with the scheduling for flights and hotels so long as it doesn't cost them any extra. The net result is that I got to hang with Miss Kate and HRH Miss Anna Banana (I am not a fruit!) and the rest of the Reston, VA crew. I also got to see the new Anna Banana World Headquarters which features and enormous back yard, a pool, a gas grill, two dogs, a big screen HDTV (coming soon), and all the other plunderage of upper middle class suburbia.

Here's something I didn't expect. I asked Miss Anna what her favorite bands were, expecting to here about Outkast or Beyonce or whoever is getting airplay these days. The response: Pink Floyd, Metallica, The Doors -- Led Zepplin is awesome; basically, Classic Rock. Miss Anna is 12 (going on 23). She gets major points from me for having a mind open enough to not like what everyone else thinks is cool just for the sake of fitting in. She just likes what she likes. Better than I would have done at her age.

As for me, I actually ate steak for the first time in months, if not years, courtesy of Miss Kate. No, I do not count the steak in the Bistro Steak Salad at Panera Bread. I'm talking real steak -- 20 ounces of medium rare prime rib on the bone. Said 20 ounces immediately found a comfortable resting place around my midsection, but not without sending raiding parties out to coagulate in my arteries. Currently, I'm lulling it into a false sense of security while I muster my forces for a full-on diet and exercise assault.

Baltimore remains a fun town, at least down around the Inner Harbor. It was wicked hot (upper 80s) and I was able to sit outside at the Hard Rock and have lunch overlooking the Baltimore harbor. Weird thing about Baltimore: Once I get downtown I can make my way around fine, but despite having tread the path from the airport to the city several times, I can never do it without making at least one wrong turn. My ego is such that I blame the poor signage in and around the airport.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of good travel experiences. First, Avis car rental. They offered me a choice of available cars; asked me only once, and very politely, if I wanted to pay for gas up front or buy extra insurance. There was no attempt to get me to upgrade to a more expensive model. Basically, they didn't try to squeeze any extra dollars from me. So thank you, Avis, for treating me like an adult.

Second, Sheraton Hotels and specifically the Reston Sheraton. Sheraton is a midline hotel chain in the Hilton/Marriot class of luxury, but they have taken the lead from lower-end places like Courtyard Marriots and Hilton Garden Inns by providing lots of conveniences at no extra cost -- things that, for unfathomable reasons, luxury hotels don't provide or make inconvenient, or charge ridiculous prices for. Specifically, things like having snacks and sundries available for purchase 24/7 instead of a gift shop that's only open from 9 to 5, or worse, having to call room service; free in-room high-speed connections; free and convenient self-parking; and a complimentary bottle of water instead of hoping I would be thirsty enough to open one and take a four dollar charge.

I'll stop before this turns into a major rant. I promise to write extensively about this later, but I cannot describe how refreshing it was not to be nickel-and-dimed by a nice hotel. It's a good strategy. I am now predisposed to stay at Sheratons when traveling for business.

Now it's back to my irregularly scheduled life.
Ya Snooze, Ya Lose: One of the enduring myths of the working world is that there is a correlation between waking up early and productivity. This particular form of insanity is left over from the days pre-electrification, when to make the most out of a day you needed to make the most of the sunlight. (The face-slapping irony of this being that, if you work in an office, maximizing your time working during sunlit hours often means you see a minimum of the sun.)

An article in today's WSJ sums it up well (can't link -- it's for paying subscribers only):
Of all the gulfs in understanding at the office, among the most difficult to bridge is that between morning and night people. On the one hand, think bushy-tailed company lawyers who eat lunch at 11 a.m. On the other, consider the bleary-eyed techies for whom the only thing as bad as waking up early is the people who enjoy it so loudly.
The conflict between the morning larks and the night owls would be the office equivalent of the Bloods versus the Crips if, at any given time, one gang weren't so pooped.

But we're not talking about a fair fight here. The 9-to-5 shift overwhelmingly favors larks. When has anyone complained that employees show up too early? Owls, on the other hand, are frequently stigmatized as recalcitrant slugabeds who fritter time and resources on the company's dime.

That stigma is just another sign that shallow emblems of productivity impress American managers more than results. After all, the 9-to-5 shift has become an anachronism in the 24-hour global economy. It fails to take into account the impact of e-mail and other technologies in making traditional work hours less relevant.

It also ignores biology. High schools and colleges have finally woken up to that fact, increasingly delaying the beginning of classes to better suit the biological clocks of students whose sleep cycles naturally slip later into the night. "It is absolutely crazy to expect high-school and college students to learn things at 7 a.m.," says Timothy Monk, director of the Human Chronobiology Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Similarly, he says. "it makes more sense for [employees] to work during hours they are productive than some artificial 9-to-5 schedule."

Amen. I can state pretty accurately that my most productive hours at work are between 3-6 pm. In fact, back when I used to have to work enormous amounts of overtime, I would regularly leave work for dinner and come back to put in two or three more hours in the evening because it just felt much easier for me to do that.

The truly annoying thing about morning people is the priggish attitude they carry. The office world is designed for them and they can't fathom why anyone would be any other way except weakness of will. Drag yourself in anytime later than 9am you will no doubt encounter someone who has already been at work for three hours and is pressing you for an answer to some horribly complicated question before you have even made it to the coffee machine. They preen like this in the hopes you will be shamed out of your slovenly habits by their early-bird sanctimony.

In a more civilized world, these people could be maced. They are like nagging spouses who can't understand why you are like you are so they just nag and harp on it in the hopes that you'll see the light and reform yourself to be more like them. Their thinking is inflexibly dogmatic: "You're more productive in the afternoon? How can that be? That's just crazy talk. You're gonna need to get yourself motivated."

Morning people are worse than Hitler. There, I said it.

Well, to all of you early birds reading this let me just say congratulations, you got the worm. Hope it was tasty. Oh, by the way, I've scheduled a staff meeting for 6pm, you don't mind staying late, do you? You do? Well, you're gonna need to get yourself motivated.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Looking Back and Laughing: By one of those odd coincidences of life I happened upon a couple of older movies on late night TV that I had seen and liked before -- Clockwise and Hannah and Her Sisters -- so I reviewed them.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Quick Links: I have a new piece ready to go up at blogcritics, but the site was inexplicably down so I couldn't post. Maybe tomorrow. For now, interesting links:
  • Is the Bugatti Veryon the most extreme car ever?

  • Although I have occasionally argued that Detroit is best forgotten, Forgotten Detroit contains some fine images.

  • Speaking of Detroit, the Detroit Sports Rag is an independent, opinionated and somewhat racy sports journal.

  • Mocoloco, a fine site for design mavens like yours truly.

  • My favorite critic, Terry Teachout, explains why arts tend toward sadness rather than happiness. "If you’re really, truly happy, it tends to render you inarticulate..."

  • Why living in China sucks for boys, but really, really sucks for girls.

  • Trivia: The character Jim in Business As Usual is named for the lead in the Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim. Here's why.

  • Lemony Snicket is coming to theatres in December. The books are excellent -- filled with a deep appreciation of language. The film will probably stink (most do), but HRH Miss Anna will be pleased.

  • OK this is truly gross. No kidding; you have been warned. But if you want your belongings to be absolutely, positively secure, I suggest: The Brief Safe. You'll sleep easy.