Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hippodamus the Hippie

You know, I mentioned hippie-mocking in yesterday’s entry, and in reading one of next month’s Book Selections, Aristotle’s Politics, I think I may have stumbled across a reference to the first hippie radical (at the start of Book II, Chapter 8):

“Hippodamus of Miletus: A planner of towns, who also sought to plan cities on new lines…[I, Aristotle, will present criticism] of his legal novelties, and especially of his proposal to reward the inventors of reforms.  Tradition has its claims; and the value of a law-abiding habit may be greater than that of legal reforms.  Hippodamus the son of Euryphon, a citizen of Miletus, was the first man without practical experience of politics who attempted to handle the theme of the best form of constitution…In his general life, too, he was led into some eccentricity by a desire to attract attention…He wore his hair long and expensively adorned; he had flowing robes, made from a cheap but warm material, which he wore in summer time as well as in winter; and he aspired to be learned about nature generally.”

More in January 2010…

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Complete Works of Todd Seavey, Abridged


Surveying the accomplishments and failures of 2009 as New Year’s approaches, I’m reminded that a few months ago when I listed books that cite me according to Amazon, one book that didn’t come up but on which I had an influence was the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. That’s the widely-performed comedy play that squeezes all of Shakespeare’s plays into one hour-long performance.

I was working at Applause Books when the first printed edition (or “folio,” if you will) of the play came out, so I got the chance to write some comedy footnotes for it — and at least two made it not only to the printed page but into later performances, at least ones like the performance I saw at Princeton a few years ago, in which one of the actors would pause to recite the relevant footnote to the audience.

Mine included footnotes explaining the archaic phrases “tyrannous” (adj., dinosaur-like) and “the general doom” (General Doomâ„¢ is a licensed character of Action-Time Comics). I resolve to get some more substantive writing done in 2010 — and after a pause for party recuperation, I’ll keep blogging roughly once per day.

P.S. In other theatre news, why not see my friend Jonathan Leaf’s latest play, Sexual Healing, running Jan. 6-30? I’m pretty sure it mocks hippies (as did his recent book), and mocking hippies is really all I ask for.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Beaver, Man, Monkey, Politician


Jodie Foster’s next directorial outing will be reportedly be The Beaver, featuring Mel Gibson as a troubled CEO who begins talking to his family only through a Beaver puppet, which the family finds increasingly disturbing — as you also may, after seeing the publicity photo above from it, noted on film site I hope the puppet’s not saying, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!”

(Speaking of actors who’ve played Hamlet on-screen: tomorrow a comment about Shakespeare to end the year on a cultural high note.)

This “Herman” cartoon also confuses and disturbs me (assuming that link still takes you to the Dec. 24 strip about being “dehydrated”).

On a more retro puppet note, a decade ago the two Muppets who really stood out on Muppets Tonight, I’ve always said, were thuggish Italian crooner Johnny Fiama and his sycophantic monkey sidekick Sal, and my favorite bit with them was the sad montage that went through Sal’s head (starting six minutes into this clip) when it looked as though their friendship was doomed. Sal recalls tense but treasured moments such as Johnny telling him to get off the dashboard and lambasting him for voting for Dukakis.

If Johnny and Sal are still friends in two and a half years, maybe Johnny will be lambasting Sal for voting for Huckabee in the GOP primary. After all, Dukakis’s release of the dangerous prisoner Willie Horton (brought to the public’s attention by Dukakis’s rival, Al Gore) helped sink him. And with any luck, the public won’t forgive soft-on-crime Huckabee for releasing a prisoner who recently went on to kill four cops.

More important, though, is the fact that 2010 is a good time for conservatives, libertarians, “liberaltarians,” Tea Party animals, and moderates alike to set aside differences and unite around the less-spending message in order to nudge Congress in a slightly more Republican direction. That’s not the most audacious political goal I’ve ever expressed, but it’s the fight of the moment and should not be neglected. We already more or less lost the stimulus battle and the healthcare battle. We had better at least channel the backlash competently.

Huckabee is an unabashed welfare statist who berates the free-marketeers and libertarians in his own party and is thus not the man to lead now (nor is Romney, who can hardly capitalize on outrage at socialized medicine when he’s the man who socialized it in Massachusetts). Perfection is not an option, but we’d be better off with a Pawlenty-like spending-capper or Gingrich-like regulatory streamliner — even a Palin/Perry-like decentralizer, though I fear Palin is a punchline in the minds of half the populace and thus unlikely to win. A Huckabee, though, would squander what momentum the anti-government cause has gained over the course of 2009, reversing a very healthy trend.

Monday, December 28, 2009

30 Best Punk Songs, plus the Most Ukrainian Punk Songs

Eugene Hutz of the Ukrainian Gypsy/punk ensemble Gogol Bordello, who I saw perform last night at a densely-packed Webster Hall, is a sufficiently skinny, hyper, unashamedly tacky/goofy frontman — backed by cute sports-outfit-wearing singers in knee pads — that I’m tempted to declare him the Fee Waybill of Ukraine (not to be confused with Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis of France, recently released from the hospital and reportedly planning to sue the doctor who inadvertently put him there, if Hallyday’s irate fans don’t kill the doctor first).

Meanwhile, a list of the “30 Best Punk Songs Since 1979 Available on YouTube” has been created by a former Debates at Lolita Bar participant, Newsweek’s Seth Colter Walls (we put him up against National Review’s John Derbyshire, and he used to date yet another Lolita debater, Jen Dziura).

You’ll notice he includes a song by the band Heatmiser, as good an excuse as any for me to link to the original claymation Christmas show “Heat Miser” bit (alas, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs are really the only good bits from The Year Without a Santa Claus, much as one hates to pick on a claymation Christmas special).  More recently, Heat Miser appeared briefly in this amusing video montage put together by the Op-Toons blog to mock Al Gore’s eco-doomsday poetry.

On another holiday musical note, I was amused to see over Christmas in Norwich that Liberty Honda of Hartford is running TV ads using a faux-hairband jingle called “The Final Markdown,” in the style of the band Europe’s “The Final Countdown” (always filed in my brain near “Life Is Life” by the Austrian band Opus, who perhaps should be covered at some point by Gogol Bordello).

Getting back to punk for a moment, though: my own most punk contribution to the culture this month will either turn out to be that chapter-length version of “Conservatism for Punks” I’m finishing up or my drunk, somewhat maudlin — yet killer — rendition of “God Save the Queen” last week at Iggy’s karaoke bar, dedicated to a certain vexing punk-sympathizing woman I know who doesn’t even like karaoke.  It seemed to be a crowd-pleaser precisely because it lends itself to a more dangerous performance than the New Wave I’ve often done — but then, that is the nature of the punk/New Wave dichotomy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Connecticut Christmas Menagerie

It seems like every time I visit my parents in Norwich, CT, my once-harmless hometown has some new menacing species harassing everyone’s pet cats or even dogs.

We worried about nothing of that sort when I was a kid, then came Lyme-carrying deer ticks, coyotes, a bear or two, and the recent plague of wild turkeys, plus a couple skunks, the animal my mother fears most. Recently, my parents casually mentioned keeping the cats indoors now to keep them away from the fisher cat across the road, a species of three-foot-long predator related to the marten that I’m not even sure I ever heard of before (Nybakken blames anti-hunting laws and environmentalists, usually a wise move). Here’s a fisher cat, just so you’ll be unfazed if you see this out the living room window.

And there really has been a program to reintroduce them, leading to recent pest complaints in New England, says Wiki. — though this is not quite as annoying as flying grizzly bears into my friend Holly’s mom’s neighborhood in Montana via government helicopter, which she was understandably perturbed about several years ago.

Indoors at the Seavey home, things remain fairly tranquil, though my parents’ dog Jaycie seems to be neurologically degenerating in some way that causes her to wander around until she reaches a corner and then stand staring into it.

The game-theoretical situation with the three cats is at its usual stand-off: Elder cat Meow avoids dark and lanky Pepper, but she enjoys giving objects to Pepper’s brother Salty and then watching him go berserk with them. Indeed, Salty particularly enjoys putting things in shoes, whereas Pepper enjoys dropping them into water. It is therefore crucial on any visit home to be careful when putting one’s shoes on or when raising the toilet lid.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Selections of the Month: Cabell, Mirrlees, and Williams Book Selections of the Month (December 2009):

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Cabell

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

If proudly amoral people, lesbians in academia, and Christians with a theatrical bent are your idea of a good time — and aren’t they everyone’s? — you’ve come to the right Christmas Eve blog entry, since the three books listed above (in order of their publication) appear to have been produced by just such authors.

This entry also marks the glorious fulfillment of my year-long plan to make 2009 one last fun-filled wallow in fantasy books, sci-fi books, comics, and TV before leaving consumption of all of those things behind (and even this seemingly frivolous plan naturally expanded into some digressions such as utopian texts throughout October and other arguably highbrow fare because that’s how I roll). Saving some of the best for last, though, I here recommend three strange early-twentieth-century fantasy novels clearly aimed at mature readers — these are no mere war between elf tribes. At least the first two turn out to have been praised by Neil Gaiman, but I swear that’s not how I discovered them.

Jurgen (1919) was written by an American, James Cabell (rhymes with “rabble”), who had been suspected of murder at one time eighteen years before this book — not hard to believe given the strange fact that his main character here, Jurgen, commits a murder and soon resolves, in a fatalistic fashion, that what’s done is done and that he won’t even bother reflecting back on the crime during later episodes of soul-searching and (slight) moral growth, brought on by slipping ghost-like between different fantastical and mythological worlds in search of his wife and numerous extramarital affairs (in a picaresque fashion bordering on sloppy and superficial at times). Very weird. Somewhat Satanic, by design.

But then, a lot of Satanism is really just playful philosophical mischief, you’ll find — even when allied to other, truly execrable causes. Take for example the dedication to the book Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, an influence on Obama associate Bill Ayers, which apparently reads in part: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”

One amusing aspect of Cabell’s amoral, faux-medieval novel: Jurgen eventually visits Hell and learns that it is actually filled with self-absorbed moralists who have intense and guilt-wracked consciences, who spend eternity demanding punishment for sins that no one else — including God or Satan — actually cares about.

People without consciences (arguably including the philandering and lying Jurgen himself) go directly to Heaven, whereas the occupants of Hell, the ultimate “controlling bottoms,” narcissistically demand elaborate punishments from the wearied demons of Hell. The demons are the only ones who are truly suffering in all this, since they have to keep poking penitents with pitchforks and relighting bonfires and so forth, causing the demons to start complaining about the fact that Hell hasn’t had a democratic change of administration in a very long time and could perhaps do with some alterations.

Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) was written by Hope Mirrlees, a British woman who fell in love with one of her female professors and lived with her until the latter’s death. This hyper-quaint, rural tale — almost like a ghost story set in a combination of New England and Hobbiton — revolves around the question of just how much weirdness a community can repress before having to embrace the strange. The closest analogy from our world is not forbidden sexuality, though. Rather, Mirrlees’ tale suggests she had at least some passing familiarity with drug culture. In the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, the drug in question is not heroin or cocaine, though — it’s fairy fruit, a reminder that the entire town once had frequent interaction with beings about whom it is now taboo to speak at all.

As a corrupt teacher, a semi-human doctor, and other local menaces begin luring children into ancient, repressed rituals, a pair of aging fathers attempt to unravel the mystery, leading to a hallucinatory trip to fairy land itself and encounters with the walking dead. In the end, though, the only solution to the artificial dichotomy between the rational, commercial world of Lud-in-the-Mist and the irrational but spiritually-invigorating world of the fairies may be to let in the forbidden armies of the supernatural.

Descent into Hell (1937), arguably the best — and most conventionally moralistic — of the three books, was written by Charles Williams, part of the circle of British, Christian fantasy writers called the Inklings, which also included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The plot revolves around a group of mostly-young twentieth-century British intellectuals and theatre people unwittingly living in a neighborhood where the veil between our world and the afterlife has grown very thin, affording each of several characters the opportunity to perceive the divine or, through easy but vicious psychological decisions, sink into Hell, both metaphorically (by succumbing to hate and aggression in this world) and literally (by consorting with demons). Central to the plot — and aesthetically vindicating the book as a whole — is a harrowing portrait of an older man obsessed with a theatrical young woman — and, ultimately, with a demonic version of her.

We haven’t quite heard the last from British fantasists on this blog, by the way, since G.K. Chesterton will make an amazing second appearance in my Book Selections in January (though not for a fantasy novel), as will Aristotle and an In Character issue about Wisdom — plus, perhaps less obviously, books from economist David Friedman and eroticist Rachel Kramer Bussel (and speaking of sex-obsessed writers, I see anthropologist Helen Fisher is speaking at the New York Academy of Sciences on Jan. 5, so maybe I should check her out).


Also coming next year, lest I appear to be giving up on fantasy in all forms: a decent batch of likely-good nerd movies (to note on your new 2010 calendar):

•Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (3/19)
•a remake of Clash of the Titans from the director of the second Hulk movie (3/26)
Iron Man 2 (5/7)
Jonah Hex, based on the disfigured DC Comics cowboy character who wears a Confederate uniform — with Megan Fox portraying a scantily-clad whore (6/18)
Inception, the Matrix-like thriller from Chris Nolan (7/16)
The Expendables, featuring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and virtually every other action star ever, fighting a Latin American dictator (8/20)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (11/19)
Tron Legacy (12/17)
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (roughly one year from today)

The two-part final Potter film (don’t tell me what happens!) will reportedly feature a brief glimpse of main-character ass, by the way. Alas, it will be a Harry ass, not a Her.-ass. (Aslan will also be nude in any and all remaining Narnia films, if you swing that way.)

But I’m de-emphasizing the fantasy next year in favor of some real-world history (which is, of course, often even weirder), while admitting I’m sort of doing it for fantasy-enhancing purposes, having another comic book idea percolating in my brain.

Tomorrow, though, I’m off to my own little slice of ancestral forestland, Norwich, CT — and thus will be offline until Sunday morning. Enjoy the holiday and be good — your small corner of the universe depends on it, after all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Conservative Punk Moves to Wyoming

Libertarian Republican Eric Dondero posts an essay by Michael W. Dean, singer of the punk band Right Arm of Wyoming, who got sick of criminals, liberals, and anti-gun forces in California and then bought guns and pulled up stakes — a heartwarming tale for the holidays (and in the same week, as it happens, that I spoke to a woman who once had the Dead Kennedys crash at her house).

I don’t claim punk conservatism is common — or even that it’s a trend — only that it’s correct.

P.S. Sam Goldman, who I mentioned Monday, occasionally repeats the punkish anarchist slogan “No gods, no masters,” though usually not in his posts on the First Things blog — and I have only recently learned it was the slogan of Margaret Sanger’s birth control and eugenics newsletter circa World War I. Interesting cross-fertilization, so to speak.

ADDENDUM: I have a ticket to give away to a Gogol Bordello concert (they being a Ukrainian, Gypsy-inflected punk band), if anyone wants to claim it and join me, this Sunday 7pm at Webster Hall. Just e-mail my Earthlink address, discernible from my right margin — and be warned I’ll be offline from Christmas morning until the evening of the next day (Saturday), but at that time I’ll then promptly respond to the lucky first claimant (assuming it’s a non-hostile person I know) and will note here that the ticket’s been claimed — if it doesn’t get claimed before then [UPDATE: Ticket claimed!].

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shatner, Randi, Raimi, Pop

I strongly urge you to read the manic interview with William Shatner in the January GQ (on sale now) by Andrew Corsello — and not just because he asked a question about “Rocket Man” at my urging. No, Andrew covers the waterfront and captures the self-referentially larger-than-life quality of Shatner — or “SHATNER!” as he renders it throughout the article — better than any other profile of the man I’ve seen. This paragraph is an example, inspired by Shatner’s recollection of moving his hand at an auction and accidentally buying a horse (and I am reminded that Andrew and I had a class years ago with readings from Nietzsche):

“I believe that when things happen, they happen with a PURPOSE,” Shatner declares. “You can’t change them. I have been accused of never saying no. I am INDISCREET, it is said, is it not? With my roles. With my endorsements. With my books. With all that I am involved in. But I am not a big believer in No. What if I had tried to renege on that horse? I’d only have embarrassed myself. A flaky actor pretending at being a cowboy. No, I ACCEPTED it. I moved with it. I believe in MOTION. I believe in CHAOS. I believe in taking what happens as inevitable. Lightning STRIKES. It RAINS. You get ILL. You get NOMINATED. The photon SHATTERS the molecule, the electrons SHOOT OFF in all directions, and I BEHOLD the mineral around me!”


Speaking of things resembling science, Chuck Blake notes that another nerd hero, debunker-of-false-claims James Randi, has (to my delight, really) run afoul of the global warming alarmists. This has to be a strange time for them, with their sinister regulatory triumph at hand in Copenhagen and their credibility rapidly crumbling in East Anglia at the very same time. Predictably, instead of becoming more cautious, they’ve become more dogmatic — slapping down anyone, such as Randi, who expresses doubt about the doomsday narratives, declaring him — James Randi! — anti-science.

They know they’re in a weakening position intellectually and can’t afford to let the momentum get away from them. And it’s not just that one or two East Anglia e-mails suggest the scrubbing or skewing of data, it’s that the e-mails confirm the widely-held suspicion that the tiny, well-funded club of climate researchers is not engaged in dispassionate research but rather in circling the wagons and preventing anyone straying from the approved storyline. If, as they so often claim, they thought the science alone would bear out their story, they wouldn’t be as desperate as they visibly are to get one more of their guys onto each science journal editorial staff that has an opening. It’s like watching a lit department faculty hiring committee torn between humanists and deconstructionists (neither able to win converts by pointing to evidence alone), vying for control.

Pathetic. This is not how lasting scientific wisdom is created, and it shouldn’t be how regulation is created. But then, given problems like this, the human race probably shouldn’t create regulation.


What should the human race create? Better Spider-Man movies for one thing, as alluded to in a previous entry. Toward that end, it appears that no less a figure than director Sam Raimi himself has been arguing with the studio that the Vulture is the best villain for the next movie. Of course, it’s worth reminding myself that I didn’t like Spider-Man 2 (critically-acclaimed Michael Chabon’s writing efforts notwithstanding) or 3, so I suppose I shouldn’t care too much.

In more auspicious news, though, it sounds like the young-Magneto and young-X-Men movie ideas have merged into an X-Men: First Class prequel (emphasizing the initial Magneto/Xavier split), directed by Bryan Singer, who did X-Men and the stellar X-Men 2. That all sounds like the best of three worlds coming together, which is nice.


On a broader note, it has crossed my mind over the past couple days that pop culture, despite its growing plenitude, hasn’t really changed that much in its overall tone in the past twenty years — not when you compare, say, the 40s to the 60s, or the 60s to the 80s. People in their teens or twenties at any time over the period 1989-2009 got a similar combo plate in some ways. Like strange attractors in chaos theory, certain recurring tropes such as the Internet, gaming, reality TV, genre-mixing alternative/indie music, retro crazes, and personal electronics seem to be scattered almost evenly across the epoch.

And five things (some huge, some admittedly very dinky) that in my mind sort of demarcated the current pop culture epoch, each happening in or about 1989, were:

•(politics) collapse of European Communism

•(everyday living) the Internet

•(TV) the Simpsons

•(music) the Deee-Lite video for “Groove Is in the Heart” (and all the retro-things and gender-bending clubbiness it portended)

•(film) Do the Right Thing (in retrospect, it “looks like the 90s to come” as surely as, say, Miami Vice looked like the 80s)

And when I recently listed a few absurdist humor items that preceded the Simpsons era of omnipresent absurdism, I should have given props, so to speak, to Airplane (and Police Squad from the same crew) as well as to early Steve Martin. He got tame quickly and did all those family comedies, so it’s easy to forget how ludicrous The Jerk was, not to mention his fantastic first two ABC specials, which dared to ask questions like (paraphrasing): Has this ever happened at your home? You throw a party, and a friend leaves drunk…then gets into his steamroller and begins to drive?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Commies, Punks, Academics

Partying my way across the political spectrum over the past few days (because life is so full of reasons to celebrate, don’t you know) brought me into contact with libertarians, then liberals, and tonight communists. I was on the massive invite list for the Communist Party USA’s annual holiday (??) party tonight at their Unity Hall headquarters on West 23rd St., so I may as well at least check it out.

The renting out of parts of that building is apparently their main source of income these days (landlords!), as the New York Post noted a couple years ago. The article mentioned one CPUSA official named Libero Della Piana, a Brown alum from my time who once played a game of Monopoly with an ex-girlfriend of mine, a prophetic ritual in retrospect.

Somewhat closer to me on the political spectrum, my self-described socialist friend Richard Ryan e-mailed a link to this New Republic rave for economist Amartya Sen’s new book, which ostensibly contains profound insights about why fundamental elements of economics ought to be questioned, such as the assumption that we should gauge the goodness of consequences by whether individuals’ preferences are being fulfilled. Weirdly, though, Sen does think that we should gauge people’s wellbeing by their capacity to enhance others’ preferences. Why the hypothetical second group of people’s preferences matter so much if the preferences of the first don’t is unclear — at least in the review, and I fear it wouldn’t be much better in the (much longer) book.

Sen is apparently building on Rawls’ intuition — hardly novel at this point and hardly something that takes hundreds of pages to explain — that helping the worst-off is the morally crucial thing, and should be seen as such even by developmental economists, requiring us to take the worst-off (even in distant places) into our democratic deliberations about how the rules of the world ought to be structured without clinging fast in advance to any particular set of intuited rules (such as purely libertarian or purely egalitarian ones). Sam Goldman responded to Richard Ryan by noting that several thinkers just at Harvard alone had already expanded on Rawls’ ideas in this way, such as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Judith Shklar.

(Sam, who jokes that he is the token atheist blogger at First Things, is the young scholar who, when I first encountered him a decade ago, was a straightedge punk, so he may well crop up in the chapter-length “Conservatism for Punks” essay I’m writing over the two-week vacation I’m starting today, assuming the Communists don’t alter my whole philosophy tonight.)

I find myself a lot less interested as I age in whether yet another philosopher or economist has intuited that we ought to do something about the desperately poor — we know, we know! — and more interested in what specific policies would work to get the job done (and of course, I’m guessing: markets, though one word may not quite do the topic Justice) and, perhaps more intriguingly, which specific policies do the most unwitting damage (foreign aid? licensure? protectionism?).

Here’s a practical consequence, if Sen wants to be a consequentialist: India, long suffering under de facto democratic socialism, partially deregulates…and poverty rates there decrease more rapidly than ever before in history (while philosophers come up with ever more rationalizations for why fully free markets aren’t the source of good outcomes).

I’ll grant Sen this, though: his ex-girlfriend (my former Brown prof Martha Nussbaum) is still kind of hot, though equally wrong about some things, despite the influence of her reportedly libertarian daughter.

Speaking of academics and communists, by the way, I was seated behind members of NYU’s Young Communist League in the studio audience of Stossel last week, and it was another reminder that I don’t think the liberal/academic mainstream can be trusted to ward off socialism (much as some market fans might wish there were a viable, more respectable alternative to pushing libertarianism). The YCL kids were the only ones in the audience shouting out comments about Kenneth Arrow and other esteemed liberal-mainstream thinkers as support for their pro-Obamacare position (and the Communist party invitation also noted the passage of Obamacare as reason to celebrate, by the way). By academic standards, they might have been A+ polisci students for all I know — and the very last people in the audience by whom I’d want to be governed.

I didn’t ask if they’d be at the party tonight, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people who are smart but wrong, and the “wrong” is the important part, from a consequentialist perspective. Those near-starving millions matter more than a handful of academics, no matter how impressive their credentials.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Have Touched William Shatner's Life


Well, the fourth audio clip down here — the one about “Rocket Man” — is GQ’s Andrew Corsello asking the legendary William Shatner himself a question I suggested: how that song, as inimitably performed by Shatner, compares to Leonard Nimoy’s shocking “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” song (with the video’s self-parodically 60s-ish plug for the United Nations).

Like the main characters in Free Enterprise, I am pleased just to know that in some small way the level plane of my starship’s course, as it were, has intersected with his.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Simpsons at 20


Lacking TV reception, I have no idea when the official anniversary show airs — and, of course, they started out as shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show — but today marks the actual twentieth anniversary of the first real, half-hour (Christmas-themed) episode of The Simpsons, explaining how they got Santa’s Little Helper from the racetrack.

Little did we know then that we’d come to value the Halloween episodes far more than the Christmas ones, but it was all revolutionary and hilarious — even though I almost stopped watching around episode 3 because I hated the “Dancing Homer” baseball episode so much (I still recall my friend Paul Taylor saying the same thing at the time, but we both stuck with it for at least several more seasons, thank goodness).

By contrast, I think my favorites have been “Homer in Space,” the Conan O’Brien-penned “Monorail” episode, and perhaps “Kamp Krusty.” Speaking of Krusty, I think the show marked an important break between the decades of American comedy dominated by a Vaudeville feel and — though Vaudeville’s influence will long resonate — an era more dominated by postmodernism and “college” humor. Alan King and Seth MacFarlane seem to belong to somewhat different worlds.

And nerds should be grateful simply for the sci-fi-like level of strangeness and randomness that The Simpsons has helped make acceptable on mainstream television — chaos of a kind that only the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and moments of early Woody Allen had previously achieved but which now seemingly permeates not just several sitcoms but virtually every animated kids’ show, albeit in a more frenetic, more snarky, and far less creative form. By contrast with today’s toons, I recall when I could hardly believe my eyes when I stumbled across rare hip animated shows like The Tick, Ren and Stimpy, and the earlier, tragically overlooked New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (featuring such fitting yet absurd characters as Bat Bat, who drove a fleshtone “Manmobile” with gangly human feet instead of wheels).

What more can I say? Perhaps only: “Excellent.” And “D’oh!” And “I don’t believe in nothin’ no more — I’m going ta law school!” And “Batman’s a scientist.” And “I’m the one with stigmata.” And of course “Well, judging by his outlandish attire, he’s some sort of free-thinking anarchist.” And…

P.S. On a perhaps less historic TV note, you should be able to glimpse me silently sitting in the audience on tonight’s 8pm Eastern Stossel episode (on healthcare) on Fox Business Network (alas, without former NY lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey as my companion, since she had to cancel).  And at some point, you’ll see the episode about Rand in which I actually ask a (skeptical) question, then with luck future episodes in which I answer questions, and then I conquer the world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Black Metal in the Times

More culture: A Norwegian-decay vs. American-hybridization clash and Catholic-pagan tensions are apparently just two of the profound topics raised by the Williamsburg academic conference on black metal’s place in rock, according to this New York Times article.

Is Spider-Man Being Produced by Idiots?


John Malkovich is reportedly being considered for the role of the villain the Vulture in the next Spider-Man movie — but what’s more important is that the same report says that the villain the Lizard, who has appeared more than once as an as-yet-untransformed character in the films, will not soon make his full, scaly debut because the producers think he’s too weird-looking.

I’m fine with the Malkovulture but can in no way understand why a reptile-man wouldn’t work at least as well visually (indeed, I’m skeptical of the report). Hasn’t Hollywood done countless reptile-person villains? Have we so soon forgotten the Gorn? Have we already forgotten V?!? The Lizard would be awesome. (And there’s already bare-bones computer animation they could use as a model for making him more gecko-ish and creepily wall-crawling, if desired, since he appeared in the computer-animated late-90s Spider-Man TV series in that mode.)

Truth be told, I wrote a letter to Sam Raimi and company suggesting how they could work the Lizard into Spider-Man 2 back when they were reportedly toying with the idea, a letter noting my TV and comic book-writing experience and carefully waiving any and all legal claim to the idea, so eager was I to assist. No matter how clear you make such legal disclaimers, though, Hollywood apparently still sends back a letter saying they can’t read any outside suggestions for legal reasons. Fine. At least I tried (and now I have the ostensible signature of one of the other producers).

My suggestion was that they avoid the recurring problem of the multiple villains in these movies seeming thrown together at random by depicting Doctor Octopus and the Lizard as rival scientists, one enamored of cybernetics and the other enamored of biotech, each seeking to replace damaged limbs. Then, scientific rivalry becomes a (timely! relevant!) physical battle to the death — with their student Peter Parker caught in the middle.

But on to more culturally-significant matters in two days: the twentieth anniversary of The Simpsons.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Following the Money Only So Far

My praise of Tim Carney’s reporting on cozy government-business financial dealings reminded me of a far lamer but far more common form of reporting: Leftists constantly write “follow the money” articles “exposing” the fact that conservatives are funded by other conservatives who have more money, as if (a) this is surprising and (b) leftist groups aren’t funded the same way.

For example, essentially all non-profits (not just political ones) are funded by donations, which tend to come from two groups:

1. people who agree with the non-profit

2. people who are insane and may have put money in the wrong envelope.

Though the second group is probably larger than you might think, group 1 accounts for most of the money.  There is no crime in this.  And I’m sure most non-profits, be they evil or good, misguided or enlightened, wish there were some giant source of impartial money that rained down out of the sky all day long, but instead you just hope people will like what you do and join the cause.

If all you cared about were raking in dollars, though, odds are you wouldn’t be in the non-profit sector in the first place (whether you’re right, left, or otherwise) but would be, say, running a franchise restaurant or something.  At some point, you have to stop marveling at the fact that money is changing hands and cope with the arguments being made.  Nonetheless, we will surely see many more articles in the future meant to make it sound suspicious that, say, Conservative Magazine A is funded by the Foundation for Conservative Magazine A, which was in turn created by Conservative Rich Person A and several associates of his, who also possess this thing called money, which can be exchanged for goods and services, some of them potentially filthy and impure.

And with that I’m off to see Tim Burton and Bauhaus exhibits at MoMA with Dave Whitney’s family and possibly Nybakken, and I expect some bunch of rich people — working in concert — are partly responsible for it all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Speaking of a World in Need of Capitalism: Obamanomics

Tim Carney has a new book out on Obamanomics, which is good to hear.  Carney, like his mentor, the late Robert Novak, is a reporter first and an ideologue second, and there is far more dirt, collusion, and cronyism than pure political theory to report when it comes to Obama policies.

Carney’s book The Big Rip Off from a few years ago was similarly an expose of the way that pro-government and pro-market descriptions of the world quickly give way to messy, unprincipled public-private interaction in the real world.  All the more reason to strive to shrink government, which will always be an engine of predation, favoritism, and net wealth destruction.  It’s tempting for ideologues of all stripes to imagine that the world is behaving somewhat like their idealized models — if not out of optimism, then simply because the models are easier to understand than the insanity and conflict of the real world.  But that’s no excuse for ignoring the facts or for pretending that one’s favored politicians somehow approximate one’s ideals.

Carney’s descriptions of businesses talking like free market fans and then seeking regulations that crush their competitors or subsidies that give their own industries a leg up may have seemed like an unwelcome footnote to political debate just a few years ago, a problem to be cleaned up at some uncertain point in the future so that we can all go back to the more pleasant business of pretending daily life is, say, a conflict between libertarian entrepreneurs and principled socialist politicians.  A few years later, it should be obvious to everyone that government is a partner in pillage with well-connected businesses and that tragically few people are fighting for a consistent property rights regime — though that remains the right thing to do and the only beneficial direction to head.  (Likewise, few in government are engaged in redistributing wealth to the truly needy, if that’s what floats your boat.)

P.S. Oddly enough, one critic of Obama policies lately, now reportedly hoping to run for New York comptroller, is our disgraced former governor, Eliot Spitzer.  I cannot imagine why he thinks being a candidate for any office ostensibly concerned with ethics and good conduct is a viable move for him, though.  The anti-Spitzer campaign ads practically write themselves.  Trot out pictures of his prostitute with some slogan like “Spitzer?  Spits him” and he’s done for.

P.P.S.  I also question the economic wisdom of James Cameron, as previously noted — no matter how visually-stunning Avatar is, its Emerald Forest vs. Starship Troopers plot still seems to me unlikely to make back the immense financial investment, even with pricey IMAX 3D tickets.  But next week, I promise a couple blog entries on more bankable franchises, Spider-Man and the anniversary-approaching Simpsons.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Stossel Tonight and Tomorrow

Tonight, if you aren’t watching leftist Sander Hicks perform punk music at the Gershwin Hotel or seeing a press screening of risk-taking capitalist James Cameron’s Avatar, you’ll probably be watching the 8pm Eastern premiere of Stossel on Fox Business Network (which repeats tomorrow, Friday, at 10pm — opposite his old show, 20/20, so take that, ABC!).

Will I be on it, asking a question from the audience about Ayn Rand and flashing a Vulcan salute as a shout-out to my libertarian-Trekkie homies like Ali Kokmen? I’m not sure because they may air another Stossel episode about global warming first and save the Ayn Rand episode for another week. As I type this some seven hours before it posts, the Fox Business site doesn’t yet say — indeed, it doesn’t yet even indicate anywhere that I can find that they have any shows airing Thursday, which is pretty typical of the short-term focus of TV, from what I’ve seen. No future, no past.

(Roger on Family Guy knew what he was talking about when he insisted on receiving advance notice of a broadcast and a guaranteed VHS copy afterwards as part of his terrorist demands — even when you’re involved in the broadcast, that’s about what it takes to stay informed about what’s going on, so busy and last-minute is everything.)

I’m not complaining, though: During the run-through of the first two tapings, I not only got to go onto the set and do my Nick Gillespie impression (a pretty accurate prediction of his actual comments taped later, if I do say so myself, including a reference to the eroticism of having your feet nibbled by fish) but also got to pretend to be guest Stephen Dubner of the Freakonomics blog (not John Allison of BB&T as I’d anticipated).

Next week, if all goes as planned, I’ll return to the audience one more time, staying silent while my ACSH colleague Betsy McCaughey (New York’s most charismatic former lieutenant governor) tries to put in her two cents about Obamacare. After that, I will just watch like any other citizen as Stossel teaches a world in need about the basics of capitalism.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Conservatism for Punks for Communists?

If all goes according to plan, I think a concert will be held tomorrow night by a punk band fronted by the friend who probably disagrees with me most, Sander Hicks being a Catholic, yet non-traditionalist, Green Party, Marxist 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Or at least, he has been these things at various times in the past, but he’s also been one of my most impressively entrepreneurial acquaintances, starting at least three businesses, at least two of them still functioning last I knew, albeit without him at the helm, not such a bad track record.

(I notice one of those businesses, Soft Skull Press, has published a book on roller derby by Alex “Axles of Evil” Cohen, a rollergirl from two years after me at Brown — which means she may well know Brown alum Emily Fromm, wife to — and now mother of the offspring of — Debates at Lolita Bar co-founder Lefty Leibowitz, who among other claims to fame himself founded the Gotham Girls Roller Derby League. These and other recurring themes are all connected in ways even those involved cannot pretend to fully understand, though it is my hope that many subtle social filters now opaque to us will be transparent to the sociologists of the future.)

And Sander says he’s “evolving” politically. After emphasizing decentralization in his Green Party campaign for Senate and encountering Ron Paul economic advisor Peter Schiff’s anti-Fed, anti-government ideas (presumably via the Truther/Paulite overlap), Sander’s now intrigued by Hayek (who after all has just a hint of the dialectical historical process in his thinking), so we’ll see how things progress.

Sander’s certainly not frightened of change and challenges, tomorrow night’s band having been booked for the show — a show intended to reinvent punk — before the band was even created (it was created via a Craigslist ad less than two months ago). That time pressure certainly must focus the mind. Last I knew, they were planning to play at the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th St., a street whose decadence is severely underestimated, it being home not only to hordes of European-tourist Gershwin customers but also to the Museum of Sex, the almost anachronistic real-life “sex club” La Trapeze (like in the 70s!), my old apartment from before the move to the Upper East Side, and, perhaps most decadently of all, Scott Nybakken’s apartment with his homemade Murphy bed and ample supplies of graphic literature.

Think of the night one could have on that strip by taking in the concert and seeing all these marvels (or DC Comics, depending on what Scott has handy — though Marvel’s offices really used to be on the same block, around the corner). For good or ill, though, I’ll be seeing a free screening of Avatar tomorrow night. And no matter how Sander fares, he will not risk losing anywhere near as much money as James Cameron soon may. Over $200 million risked on a movie that turned out looking like 3D Ferngully. Now that level of risk is punk rock, man.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pirate Radio

I strongly recommend Pirate Radio (originally released in the UK as The Boat That Rocked and still playing in some NYC theatres under its American title — which may mean it’s about due on DVD for all I know).

I was concerned that despite the action (inspired by real events) taking place in 1966 under Labour, the film would be an excuse to turn the battle between the British government and unlicensed shipboard rock n’ roll broadcasters into a simple right-vs.-left fable, complete with stodgy people and idealistic youth. Instead, 1966 seems convincingly chosen simply because it was the hippest, most mod year in the history of rock. Better still, right and left are never mentioned in Pirate Radio.

On the contrary, we are repeatedly told quite explicitly that “government” (in general) is opposed to “freedom,” and no one can come away from watching two hours of Kenneth Branagh’s uptight, controlling bureaucrat character feeling that government is a more liberating force than the market. He even offers what was probably a consciously bipartisan excuse for cracking down on the rock n’ roll boat and its cast of wacky DJs: The ship and its foul music are degrading morals and engaging in crass commercialism.

So it’s a movie about rock n’ roll + commercial freedom pitted against anti-capitalism + authoritarian social conservatism, a formula that seems natural, very American (even when set in the UK), and a must-see by the standards of this website.

Another reason to see Pirate Radio: fantastic deployment throughout of Bill Nighy as the captain of the boat. Funniest I’ve seen him, I think — not just funnier than Slartibartfast in Hithchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but even funnier than Victor, king of the vampires in Underworld. There’s something almost Buckleyesque in the way he casually inspires esprit de corps while seeming vaguely as if he’s lazily melting as a side effect of his own elitist disdain for the events unfolding before him. And, hey, Buckley smoked pot on a boat in international waters, so he might have enjoyed the film, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stossel and Steampunk for All

Today, taking a day off from my real job, I’ll be a stand-in for Nick Gillespie, John Allison, and other libertarian guests on the set of John Stossel’s new hour-long show on Fox Business Channel (the first show being a discussion with Ayn Rand sympathizers).

You can get free tickets to the first three tapings of Stossel yourself by e-mailing StosselTix at FoxNews dot com — but you’ll have to be free for well over two hours in the middle of a workday starting at one of the following times (at 133 W. 47th in NYC):

•Tuesday, 12/8, 12:45, topic: Atlas Shrugged
•Thursday, 12/10, 9:45 AM, topic: global warming
•Thursday, 12/17, 9:45 AM, topic: healthcare reform with John Mackey

I suggested that if they need a contrary voice for the Rand show who’s very pro-market but (like many of us) worried that Rand may not be the best PR for markets, the Stossel team might want to consider my friend Heather Wilhelm, who wrote a Wall Street Journal piece just last week on that idea.

In other hot media news, I’m wasting no time bringing you the steampunk I promised yesterday, since I offer you this link to an Onion-worthy steampunk-themed Op-Toons item.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Profiles in Profiling

I’m cold-bloodedly rational enough to condemn groundless bigotry while at the same time being quite accepting of accurate (or even somewhat-accurate) stereotypical generalizations. We don’t necessarily want an “inoffensive” world, we want a world of accurate perceptions, from which we can learn and based on which we can make useful decisions.

As a Manhattanite, one can’t freak out every time one sees something slightly bizarre — that would get exhausting — but must develop a certain intuitive feel for which people on the street are likely to be menacing, insane, etc. Recognizing as I do that there are something like 10 million Muslims in America and virtually no terrorist incidents, therefore, I am not prone to react with alarm to every headscarf I see or radio-transmitted call to prayer I hear.

However, last week — as I was headed to the F train to go downtown and host a Debate at Lolita Bar about NASA — I saw a shrieking, possibly Pakistani woman wearing a headscarf and oddly-bulky garments, with a struggling police officer holding each of her arms as she tried to wriggle away, shouting some sort of plaintive lamentations about her capture.

Weighing my options — while not really expecting that it would turn out to be anything more than a homeless or crazy woman — I decided it wouldn’t hurt to run down to the subway platform and hop on the first train I saw a bit quicker than usual. I mean, sure, I probably wouldn’t hear the next day that she had exploded, but a filtering rule that says “Don’t hang around while cops struggle with a shrieking apparently-Middle-Eastern woman in a crowded subway hub” is not going to cost me (or innocent Muslims) in quite the same way as would a rule that said, for instance, “Look with suspicion and hostility on every black-robed Muslim woman innocently shopping at the grocery store.”


And keep in mind this was occurring during the month that New York and places beyond are up in arms over the major 9/11-related terror trial assigned to a civilian court here, which some argue should be taking place before a military tribunal (one conservative friend of mine who just went to a large protest here against the trial/venue decision says it frustrates her that the trial will now cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to resolve when it should cost exactly one bullet).

I don’t have a strong position on this issue and would hope that everyone’s top priority when considering any trial in any venue is that the correct verdict is reached. It would be disturbing if people simply wanted military tribunals because they assume you’re found guilty there and innocent in civilian courts. That would seem to suggest a serious problem with one system or the other, quite possibly both — and people might even be right in assuming this is roughly how the two systems compare, but that ought to cause much more uproar than any single trial.

On a very different procedural note, it looks like I’ll be blogging daily this week, despite my weekly-in-December plan (and I did three entries last week as well, technically) — so apparently I am virtually incapable of blogging either more or less than once per day. That is my natural rhythm, I guess, and after a couple end-of-December weekly-weeks, I may as well return to that format — albeit with a host of new, more history-driven subject matter (and not coincidentally some steampunk), but more about that later.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Yesterday's NASA Debate, 2008's Food Debate, and Shatner

Ken Silber, whose side of the question prevailed in last night’s audience vote (meaning we should not abolish NASA), described the debate on his blog and was even nice enough to post a two-part audio recording of the event. (My thanks to him for participating, recording, and editing.)

Oddly enough, I also just stumbled across a New York Press blog piece by Michele Hoos describing one of our debates, on whether to “eat locally,” from exactly one year ago tomorrow. The piece is climaxed by a distinctively Evanchikian quote from our esteemed moderator.

I am told an audio recording also exists of Andrew Corsello from GQ interviewing William Shatner and asking him a question I suggested, about the contrast between his own musical work and Leonard Nimoy’s song about Bilbo Baggins. But that will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tonight: NASA vs. Lensmen

OK, my Earthlink e-mail seems fine again — and tonight’s Debate at Lolita Bar about NASA just got a little better, too, as I have decided to create a little synergy between this month’s debate and this month’s Book Selection.

That’s right, in order to remind everyone how high the stakes are as we debate the proper way to explore space (public vs. private), I, your humble host, will be reading a couple choice passages from the sci-fi space opera saga that inspired them all, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s (trashy) Lensmen — using a copy formerly possessed by blogger X. Trapnel, let me note.

You should run to be there like an iron ship with inertialess drive, and the women who love them.

OK, I’m feeling good about some things again. Of course, I’m awake at 4am, however briefly, so you know things aren’t perfect.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Earthlink Lame, Space Program Debatable

Earthlink (or some subset of it) was down from shortly after noon (Eastern time) today until at least 5pm, and it may still be screwed up.  I think e-mails sent to me (at least during that time) disappeared completely.  They may still be disappearing.

For this week at least, best to use my work address at ACSH, which you can find easily enough by Googling, so I won’t post it here for the junk-mailing masses.

Not only is Earthlink “down,” so is our Lolita Bar debate moderator, Michel Evanchik, he says, at least a bit, so I say show up en masse at our debate there tomorrow (Wed., Dec. 2, 8pm) at 266 Broome St. (on whether to abolish NASA, with Greg Rehmke arguing yes and Ken Silber arguing no) and remind him how much we all appreciate his Socratic-Falstaffian efforts.

This may redound to your benefit in more ways than one, since it may improve the spiritedness of the debate and, since he’s also my webmaster, it may rouse him to remove the hidden html hacker-ads recently slipped stealthily into this site.

Yes, between my e-mail, my site, my webmaster/moderator, and other things we don’t have time to go into, things are just about shot to hell here at  I almost find myself wishing NASA ran Earthlink, for one thing, and that goes against my core principles.  We can discuss that tomorrow, though.

Next week, I will write at least one entry that is actually on this blog’s ostensible theme of “conservatism for punks,” though, just to make up for the lameness.  Be there.