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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

The annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is taking place in Brooklyn this weekend. It's hosted by Will Shortz, the editor of the NY Times puzzle, and is the closest thing to a national championship that there is.

The tournament consists of seven puzzles, varying in size and difficulty. The contestants are scored on their accuracy and speed, with accuracy counting for more. Points are deducted for every erroneously filled or blank square (it's like the SATs, there's no penalty for guessing, though here there are twenty-six multiple choices instead of four). There is a time limit for each puzzle, and for every minute that you finish under the limit, you get extra points. There are three finalists in each of three divisions (which are determined by experience level and past performance at this tournament). Each set of finalists then has a playoff, with each competitor competing on a separate large grid in front of a crowd. The three divisions all get the same puzzle, but each division is given a different set of clues. (The difficulty of a crossword tends to be determined less by the obscurity of the answers and more by the vagueness of the clues.)

I'm pretty much of a crossword addict; my morning doesn't feel right if I don't do the NY Times puzzle. In 2006, after hearing about the tournament, I decided to enter.

I figured I'd do pretty well; after all, I'd finished every Sunday Times crossword except one since 1997. Aware that this would be a self-selected group of fellow aficionados, I set a goal of finishing in the top twenty percent. I drove to the tournament full of confidence, signed in and looked around the room at my fellow competitors. They didn't look so smart.

I started the first puzzle well, all my mental cylinders firing smoothly. I knew the answer to almost every clue at first glance. My confidence grew.

About halfway through that first puzzle, out of the corner of my eye I saw a few people raise their arms to signal to the monitors that they were ready to turn in their sheets. I blanched. I had been absolutely zipping through the puzzle; how could they be through already?

That took me down a peg or two. The pattern continued. By the end of the tournament, I had been taken down exactly 269 pegs, finishing 270th out of 498 competitors at the tournament.

I felt a little better when I found out that Ken Jennings, the most successful competitor in the history of Jeopardy, only got 36th, although he did end up winning the novice division.

I felt a lot better when I found out what a competitive group it was. More than fifty of the competitors were evidently cruciverbalists, or people who actually construct crossword puzzles professionally. Obviously they're going to be an IQ level above those of us who merely fill them out.

Many of the competitors actually train for this tournament by doing five or six puzzles a day, perhaps three from newspapers and three from online sources.

There are tricks involved too. First, you never write with capital letters. An "E" requires four separate strokes; an "e" means just one quick squiggle. And you never actually look at the entire word as you write it out, you just look the first couple squares as you fill out them out, then you look at the next clue. To actually look at your writing instead of scanning the next clue is a waste of valuable seconds.

Another thing I hadn't appreciated was that crosswords, like much of the world, are constructed for right-handed people. If you're a lefty like me, and you hold your hand at a normal angle when writing, it will cover the clues, so you can't write and look at the same time. At the tournament, they gave an extra puzzle to us lefties (to place to the right of the one we filled out) so we wouldn't be at a disadvantage.

Some of the competitors are just mind-bogglingly good. Stanley Newman, an eminence grise in the crossword community, has written 23 books of puzzles. He once asked another cruciverbalist to construct a crossword for him. The man did so. Newman then challenged him to a contest to see who could fill in the answers more quickly. Despite the fact that the other man already knew the answers, Newman beat him.

Tyler Hinman, the overall winner of the 2006 tournament, has supposedly finished a Sunday Times crossword in five minutes. There are roughly 390 empty squares in a Sunday puzzle. That means that Hinman is averaging roughly 1.3 squares a second for the entire puzzle. Even with the answer key, I couldn't transcribe the answers that quickly.

Hinman is also astonishingly young -- he was 21 when he won the 2006 title, defending the title he first won at age 20.

I asked a 33 year old cruciverbalist who finished in the top twenty about this: "I'm 51 and I can barely remember the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. How can you possibly have the kind of storehouse of trivia it takes to be good at this?"

He answered, "Everything I know, I learned from doing crosswords. I haven't been to see a movie in six months. But you can learn an awful lot from just doing puzzles if you always check the answers the next day to the clues you didn't get."

And yet...I still have the nagging feeling that I could do six crosswords a day, always check the answers, place an extra puzzle to on the right hand side, and write with lower case letters, yet never come close to finishing a Sunday Times puzzle in five minutes.

I returned to the tournament in 2007 with a more modest goal: finishing in the top half. I was absolutely determined, and even drank a Red Bull before the first puzzle on Saturday morning (everybody else seemed to be having coffee). I finished 287th out of 698. (More people showed up in 2007 because of the release in June 2006 of the documentary "Wordplay" which centered on the 2005 tournament and interviewed famous crossword buffs Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart).

I don't plan to go back. I have no chance to win, or even place in the top twenty percent. I've already had the experience, and too many of the contestants smell like cigarette smoke for my taste.

Anyway, I've already absorbed the tournament's most valuable lesson: I'm not nearly as smart as I thought.

Strangely, no one else seems all that surprised by that.

A penny saved....

Reading about (and experiencing) the diminution of wealth while the Dow goes back to 1997 levels puts me in mind of the spending habits of a lot of the people I worked with on Wall Street years ago. Once they started making good money, many of them seemed to assume that they were on the gravy train forever.

A typical bond trader who started at an investment bank back in the 1980's might within a few years be making roughly half a million a year. You'd think that would leave plenty of room for savings.

But when I would ask my coworkers what they had invested their bonus money in, they would often reply that it was still in the bank, that they hadn't done anything with it yet. (Translation: instead of going into stocks or bonds, it was being consumed.) There just seemed to be something about a bonus that burned a hole in peoples' pockets. So, instead of saving it, the traders felt obliged to get a summer rental in the Hamptons, a Jaguar, jewelry for the wife, and take fancy vacations.

I would recommend to coworkers that they put their money into a private equity fund our firm offered its employees, which effectively allowed them to invest in private companies at three or four times earnings and then watch our firm take them public at roughly fifteen times earnings. My coworkers who did so might put ten or twenty thousand into this fund and consider themselves sufficiently thrifty.

Part of the problem was that once the lifestyle has expanded, it's hard to downscale. That first summer in the Hamptons seems like a luxury, but after spending a summer there, spending your summer weekends in the city the next year would seem a hardship. So it's back to the Hamptons.

A decade down the road, handsomely compensated the entire way, these guys might be left with as little as two or three hundred thousand. Especially after a divorce.

In all fairness, life in New York City does cost more. I once heard about a guy, a friend of a friend, who was a top salesman at one of the investment banks. He had been making roughly a million dollars a year or so since the mid-80's, yet after twenty years of this had saved virtually nothing. He lived with his wife and four children on the Upper East Side, sent his four children to private school. He owned his condo, a place on Martha's Vineyard, and nothing else.

The friend who told me about this guy (who was bemoaning his poverty) said that he looked at his expenses, and there was really no one item you could point to which was wildly profligate. Public schools in Manhattan are not necessarily very good, so he sent each of his kids to private school, at a cost of twenty thousand per year. And at these private schools, you're expected to donate another five thousand a year to the school if you can, so the education bill totaled a hundred thousand. Although he owned his condo, he had to pay maintenance fees of three thousand a month, for another thirty-six thousand a year. There were still mortgage payments on the place on the Vineyard. They had to pay for parking for their two cars, which ran to twelve thousand a year. They had cleaners come in a couple times a week, the occasional tutor for their kids, and two vacations a year, plus weekly meals out. Then when you take into account that combined federal, state, and city taxes eat up almost half your earnings, there just wasn't much left over. So, after twenty years of well renumerated work, there were only two pieces of real estate to show for it. There was no divorce involved here, no illnesses, no drug addictions, no insanely expensive hobbies. Just "normal" Manhattan living expenses.

I wonder about people like this now that most of the investment banks no longer even exist, at least in their previous form.

Of course, with the market down as much as it is, those who saved and invested their earning in stocks don't have as much to show for it either. And those who invested with Bernie Madoff, Samuel Israel, Allen Stanford, Nicholas Cosmo, or Arthur Nadel have nothing to show for it. So maybe those who lived each day as if it were their last were really the smart ones.

But what will these people do now? Will they even have enough to live on, or will they have to look for work in less well-compensated professions? How much will their lifestyles have to be downscaled? It's easy to get spoiled, hard to get unspoiled.

(Confession: occasional feelings of schadenfreude creep in when contemplating their predicament.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

The good father

Michael Jackson was briefly mentioned in the last post. I've long had a theory about him, which is that his father Joe fed him female hormones to delay the onset of his puberty in order to extend the life of the cash machine known as the Jackson Five.

Some of you may remember, or may have seen videos, of the Jackson Five back in their heyday in the late Sixties. Michael was their front man from a very early age. He was an energetic, vigorous presence with a strong singing voice. Even at age nine, Michael absolutely owned the stage. It was amazing to see a prepubescent boy so talented and well trained at both singing and dancing.

The group had any number of great songs, back in the era when Detroit was producing great music (instead of rap): ABC, I Want You Back, The Love You Save, and many others. The Jackson Five faded, as pop groups do, and Michael emerged as a solo superstar, producing such albums as Thriller, widely thought to be the best-selling album of all time. After his first couple plastic surgeries he was, for a brief period in the 1980's, remarkably good-looking. I remember seeing the picture of him on the cover of Thriller and thinking, wow, a superstar who looks like that could get any girl he wants.

But even then, at the peak of his singing and dancing prowess, his voice was preternaturally high and his body abnormally skinny. Eddy Murphy, back in his stand up days, used to have a routine about Michael Jackson's famous "date" with Brooke Shields and how that must have gone. (The gist of it was that there couldn't have been any sex involved.)

Usually when a man grows up to be this effeminate, he shows signs of it in his early childhood. But Jackson showed none of those signs. He seemed a perfectly healthy little boy, robustly enthusiastic in his delivery and with a normal build. Even as a ten year old his voice was, if anything, deeper than it was when he was a grown man. (Check out a youtube video.)

The only thing I can think is that Joe Jackson wanted to keep the Jackson Five's sound intact, and so fed Michael estrogen in an effort to keep his voice from changing. Maybe Joe didn't realize the effect it would have on his son's sexuality; maybe he didn't realize the hormone's effects couldn't be reversed once puberty was past. Maybe Joe didn't realize that by doing this he would twist his son's psyche to the point that Michael could never get enough plastic surgery. Maybe Joe figured that with nine children, he could spare one.

Joe certainly hadn't shown any reluctance to abuse his children before. By all accounts he used to whip his young sons with a belt if they didn't perform up to his expectations during their endless rehearsals. Abused children almost always end up dysfunctional adults. And sure enough, Michael's eccentricities are legion, and have been a matter of public record for some time now. Some of them are obvious (and very sad) attempts to make up for a lost childhood.

In the end you have to have some sympathy for Michael Jackson; it's not his fault that he became the freak that he is.

From my point of view, it's reassuring to finally see a guy out there who makes me look good as a father.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Aww, he's so cute

There's been a fair amount of local publicity about the chimp in Stamford which the police shot dead after it savaged a friend of its owner. The owner, Sandra Herold, had evidently lost both her husband and only child a few years back, and had filled the void in her life with the chimp. She treated him with great indulgence, feeding him filet mignon and lobster tails and champagne. She even took baths with him and let him sleep in her bed.

What Herold hadn't taken into account when she first adopted the three week old chimp was how strong chimpanzees become, and how dangerous they can be. Most experts seem to agree that an adult chimp is roughly five times as strong as an adult male human. A chimpanzee can fall 40 feet and break its fall by grabbing onto a tree limb with one hand. In 1924 a dynamometer was set up at the Bronx Zoo which measured pull force on a spring. A 135-pound female chimp was able to exert 1260 pounds of pressure on it with just one arm. (A grown man, by contrast, can exert approximately 210 pounds of pressure.)

An adult orangutan is supposed to be approximately seven times as strong as an adult male human, and a 300 pound gorilla has the strength of ten or eleven full grown men.

I read recently that a large log once fell into an orangutan enclosure, and four men together were unable to budge it. One of the orangutans later picked up the log and threw it out of the enclosure -- with one arm.

My brother was once told by a zookeeper at the Honolulu Zoo that when a chimpanzee escaped from its cage at the zoo, the zookeepers all fled for their lives, and only returned once they were armed with tranquilizer guns. In Africa, people give both chimps and baboons a very wide berth.

Nonetheless, it's easy to understand why people want to adopt the animals. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. We share 98.7% of our DNA with them; they are in fact more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. And they do have a certain semi-human cuteness to them, especially when young. (Neonate features are standard across mammalian species: large eyes for their size, high-pitched voices, and a certain innocent helplessness to which we respond accordingly.) Jane Goodall must have felt this tug when she decided to devote her young womanhood to studying bonobos in the wild.

Michael Jackson once famously adopted a baby chimp, which he named Bubbles. As it grew older and its cuteness disappeared he lost interest in it and let others take care of it. (This is not entirely dissimilar to his attitude towards male humans.) But the original attraction is easy to understand; there's something about a baby chimp which makes you want to cuddle it.

When my son and I drove across the country in the summer of 2007 we stopped at a tiger sanctuary outside Oklahoma City. Before we left we chatted with the woman in the entrance building and she brought out a baby tiger for us to pet. It was about a month old, exactly the size of a full grown house cat, but it had neonate features as well as the unmistakable markings of a tiger. It rubbed up against our legs, mewling, then wandered over to a group of tiger dolls arranged on the floor, all approximately its size, and started to play with them. It was incredibly cute.

The woman then pointed out, "Within a year and a half it will be large enough to take down a water buffalo by itself."

That was definitely food for thought. But the experience did give me a little sympathy for the unforesightful types who adopt a cute little baby tiger and then a couple years later don't know what to do with their 500 pound pet. Their quandary is particularly acute since tigers can never be completely domesticated -- any more than chimps.

Whenever we see chimps in advertisements, or on TV, or in circuses, we're looking at juvenile chimps. Experienced animal handlers know that once chimpanzees get to a certain age, they become unmanageable, as well as inhumanly strong. In all those old movies, whenever Tarzan went somewhere holding Cheetah's hand, the role of Cheetah would invariably be played by a very young chimp. Had Johnny Weissmuller had ever tried to lead an adult chimp by the hand, he would have been torn limb form limb.

The woman mauled by the chimp two days ago, Charla Nash, is still in critical condition. She has reportedly lost both of her eyes, her nose, and her jaw. (Think of the strength it requires to just pull someone's jaw off.) The police officers who arrived on the scene couldn't tell if she was male or female.

In Uganda, chimps have been known to raid the illegal brewing operations within the national parks. Once drunk, they become very aggressive towards humans, and have killed several small children. Their favorite method of killing is to first bite off the limbs, then disembowel them, just as they do to red colobus monkeys, their favorite prey. (Chimps are basically mean drunks who feel their beer muscles very quickly; the problem for humans is, the muscles of a chimpanzee are all too real.)

In 1999, former NASCAR driver St. James Davis had to give up his pet chimp, Moe, after Moe bit off part of a woman's finger. (Davis's response: "Animals bite, people bite, Mike Tyson bites. So what?") In 2005, Davis and his wife went to visit the animal shelter where Moe lived in order to celebrate Moe's 39th birthday. During the visit, two chimps from the cage next door somehow broke into Moe's enclosure and attacked Davis. By the time the chimps were shot by the son of the shelter owner, they had bitten off Davis's nose and most of his fingers. They also tore off his testicles and his left foot. (No word on whether Davis reconsidered his previous cavalier attitude.)

These are all things to keep in mind the next time you see a cute little mammal, especially one destined to grow up either carnivore or omnivore.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The stimulus bill

When the stimulus bill -- officially titled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- was first announced, most Americans probably reacted the same way I did: well, they have to do something, and they certainly can't do any worse than the last administration.

On top of that, we had Obama's word that there is "no pork in the stimulus bill."

But the more one looks, the more one uncovers portions of the bill that, if not exactly pork, are suspiciously sausage-like. Much of it hardly seems the first thing you'd think of to stimulate the economy. (The great thing about writing a 1071 page bill is that there are plenty of hiding places, and you can be sure very few people, if any, will read the entire thing.)

The bill was originally ballyhooed as an infrastructure rebuilding bill, and there are in fact ample provisions for that. If we can repair our crumbling bridges and highways and create jobs at the same time, why not?

There is also a lot of money earmarked for education. Education is always a hard cause to argue with, although much of the money thrown in that direction seems to have little end result. Barack Obama (with a few others, including Bill Ayers) took $49.2 million for the Annenberg Challenge and helped funnel it to various pet causes within the Chicago school system -- after which standardized test scores in the city changed not a whit. The schoolchildren of Washington D.C. have more spent on them per capita than those of any state in the nation, yet they rank third from the bottom on standardized tests.

There is a fair amount of money for research and development, such as a billion dollars for NASA and $1.6 billion for the Energy Department's Office of Science.

There is $20 billion for food stamps and another $2 billion for child care in the package. It's hard to argue with welfare for the poor given that welfare for the rich, i.e., Wall Street, is now government policy as well. And it's also true that aid to the poor is more directly stimulative, since the poor are more likely to immediately spend whatever small windfall they get from the government.

There is a $500 "tax break" for individuals who pay no taxes. Again, one can hardly object to welfare for the poor when we all know that much of that TARP money found its way into Wall Street bonuses. But what raises the hackles here is the obvious subterfuge. It's simply not a "tax break" when a person doesn't pay taxes to begin with. It's welfare. So why not call it what it is?

But, this money will go to someone, who will in turn spend it, thus having a stimulative effect on the economy.

There is $50 million earmarked for the National Endowment for the Arts. One can only wonder which artists that money will go to. And who will determine which art is worthy of subsidy? (Perhaps that should be "art" with quotation marks.)

But again, some people will end up with that money, and they will spend it in turn, stimulating the economy.

There is $4.2 billion slated for "neighborhood stabilization activities." This has the Republicans crying foul since this money could easily end up in the hands of organizations like ACORN, which are thinly disguised political operations. (Just to be clear: the federal government will be handing out money to organizations whose main purpose is to get the federal government to hand out more money.)

But some people will end up with that money, and they will spend it in turn....

There is $400 million earmarked for antismoking initiatives and campaigns to reduce sexually transmitted diseases. These may be good causes, but are they economically stimulative?

Well, some people will end up with that money....

There is $8 billion for high speed rails, some of which could go to Senator Harry Reid's pet project, a high speed train running directly from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in his home state of Nevada. There is $30 million for a nature park in San Francisco, Representative Nancy Pelosi's home district.

And some people will end up with that money....

[I have a suggestion. Why doesn't the government just give me a billion dollars? We can call it the American Patriot Emergency Economic Recovery Act. After all, I am patriotic. And the title implies that if you don't vote for it, you're not patriotic. I can guarantee that the result would be economically stimulative. Ferrari dealers, liquor store owners, fancy clothiers, and expensive resort operators would suddenly find they had more business. And they in turn would spend some of that money....]

Given that the Democrats did not consult at all with the Republicans when crafting this bill, it does seem as if it has been cover to sneak more than a few of their pet projects under the guise of stimulating the economy.

Please note that this essay is not a defense of TARP I, which has not gone for the cause for which it was originally passed. Nor is it a defense of all the money wasted on useless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Speaking of which, one factoid making the rounds in the news these days is that most historians agree that what eventually lifted us out of the Great Depression was not FDR's public works projects but WWII.

In which case the solution seems to be right in front of our eyes: we should escalate the "war on terror," and bomb Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Oh, and don't forget Indonesia -- they have Muslims too. (Actually, the way things are going, we should probably now include England too on that score.) This could be just what our economy needs -- World War III.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Your "Honor"

The following article appeared, in somewhat longer form, on the front page of the NY Times this morning:

"Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit

"At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.

"Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.

"She was handcuffed and taken away as her stunned parents stood by.

"“I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Hillary, 17, who was sentenced in 2007. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”

"The answers became a bit clearer on Thursday as the judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.

"While prosecutors say that Judge Conahan, 56, secured contracts for the two centers to house juvenile offenders, Judge Ciavarella, 58, was the one who carried out the sentencing to keep the centers filled...."

The article goes on to state that if the court agrees to the plea agreement, each judge will serve eighty-seven months in prison and resign from the bench and bar.

Eighty-seven months is a little over seven years, which means with good behavior the judges could be out in four years or so. If each of the 5000 youths Ciavarella was estimated to have sentenced was given an average of three months in a juvenile detention facility, that means these judges essentially stole fifteen thousand months from their young lives. That's 1250 years. So eighty-seven months hardly seems like proper repayment.

This strikes me as akin to a bank robber who steals $1,250,000 only being asked to repay $7,000 of it.

Here's another way to look at it: these youths were essentially all working for the judges' $2.6 million. If you think of each work day as being sixteen hours long (their approximate waking hours), and figure they were working thirty days a month, those fifteen thousand months come out to 7,200,000 hours of slave labor. So the judges were getting approximately 36 cents an hour for their teenage victims.

This, of course, is not even taking into account the trauma which many of the teenagers undoubtedly suffered. Juvenile detention facilities are generally not welcoming places, and there were probably sexual assaults and beatings which will scar some of the teenagers for life.

So the question is, what IS the appropriate punishment for these judges?

(Hint: an eternity in hell would be far too lenient.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wall Streeters

Reading about the $18.4 billion in bonuses doled out to bankers and traders who work for essentially bankrupt firms reminds me of what it was like to work there. The Street is full of guys with 110 to 120 IQs who think they're brilliant and who have a huge sense of entitlement.

I've also known a fair number of guys, mostly elsewhere, with higher IQs and a lesser sense of entitlement.

The latter are, trust me, infinitely preferable company.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ernst Udet and Georges Guynemer

My son told me the following story about a year ago:

Ernst Udet was the second highest-scoring German flying ace of World War I, with 62 victories. He was second only to Manfred (Baron) von Richtofen, who had 81, but died in 1918.

Early in his career, Udet encountered Georges Guynemer, the famous French ace, in the skies over Lierval, France. A dogfight ensued, with each man trying to gain the other's back. (In those days, the singleseaters the two men favored could only fire forward, not backward, so to win each needed to get directly behind the other's plane.)

Udet knew from the start that he was in the fight of his life. Guynemer (whom he recognized from the "Vieux Charles" printed on the wing of his plane) knew all the tricks that Udet did, and both men executed many of the evasive turns, loops, rolls and glides which had made each of them so successful up to that point.

Finally Udet got Guynemer's back, and pulled the trigger of his machine gun. Nothing happened. The gun was jammed.

At this point Udet realized that he had to pretend to keep fighting, or Guynemer would just get behind him and pick him off. So he continued to roll and spin as best he could. But within a few minutes, Guynemer was able to get his back.

At that moment, with the Vieux Charles directly above and behind him, Udet knew that he was a dead man.

But Guynemer did not shoot. Instead he just pulled even with Udet. When Udet looked over, he saw Guynemer salute him through the cockpit window, then fly off.

The two men never spoke, and Guynemer was later killed during the war.

People later speculated that Guynemer's gun might have misfired as well. Udet remained convinced till the end of his days that the Frenchman had spared his life because he knew that Udet would have bested him but for the jammed gun, and couldn't bring himself to kill his opponent in what would have been an unfair fight.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oscars and actors

Oscar season is heating up, and as usual I haven't seen a single one of the nominated movies. But upon Googling the list of previous Best Picture winners, I see very few I have any desire to see again. And I actually enjoy seeing a good movie more than once (the better the movie, the more great little touches you notice for the first time on second viewing).

The Academy's biases tilt towards the well-intentioned and uplifting, meaning, movies that are a little embarrassing a few years later. Quiveringly sensitive movies may pull at the heartstrings (and pull in the votes) come Awards time, but looking back at them in the cold light of day is a little like looking at a former crush. You wonder what you were thinking.

The list of previous Best Actor winners also tend toward the histrionic (think Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, or Geoffrey Rush in Shine). Sometimes the award seems well deserved, but sometimes the choice seems downright stupid. Jack Nicholson won in 1997 for As Good As It Gets, but from what I've seen, Nicholson has never played anybody but himself no matter what his nominal role. Instead of, say, imagining himself as an astronaut, he imagines the astronaut as Jack Nicholson. If he could even do a different accent, the lowest common denominator of real acting, I'd respect that. But he can only be Jack, in all his narcissistic grandeur, trying to steal every scene he's in with that weirdly insinuating voice of his.

The Departed won Best Picture in 2007, and deservedly so, despite Nicholson's presence. Every other actor disappeared into his role, adopting (or emphasizing) a Boston accent and making you feel that he was really that character. Nicholson, on the other hand, just did his patented Jack act, chewing on every piece of scenery as if he hadn't eaten in a week. Every time he appeared he seemed to announce: I'm Jack, I'm larger than life, and I'm here! I even got the sense that he changed some of his dialogue, making it more profane to suit his own personality. (I can just imagine Martin Scorcese, confronted with one of Jack's script changes, saying "That's great Jack!" while inwardly wincing. I'm betting Nicholson will never appear in another Scorcese movie.) Every other character in The Departed rang true; but I can't imagine an underworld boss acting as self-indulgently as Nicholson. Whitey Bulger, the mass murdering sociopath whom Nicholson's character was based on, must have felt real shame for the first time in his life after seeing that portrayal.

Nicholson obviously went to the Al Pacino School of Acting, where he majored in Behaving Like a Movie Star to Disguise a Lack of Acting Ability. He must have minored in Masturbating in Front of the Camera.

In any case, the essence of good acting is to disappear into a role. The great actors tend to be chameleons, not movie stars, and especially not stars of action movies. We want our action heroes to be heroic, and masculine, and invincible. And people who fit that mold tend not to be as good in other roles. Sean Connery, one of the handsomest men ever, was perfect for most of his roles, most notably as the original Bond. But he wasn't a great actor. I would have been more impressed with his range had he ever appeared convincingly as a sniveling child molester. Of course, casting him in such a role would have been near-sacrilege, and even Hollywood isn't that cannibalistic.

Clint Eastwood, another action hero, didn't have much range either. But he, like Connery, was extraordinarily good-looking, and so he was perfect as Dirty Harry and as the hero of all those spaghetti Westerns. Surprisingly, he has turned out to be one of our greatest directors. Who knew that such a wooden actor would have the exquisite sensitivity to create Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, as well as Oscar winners Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby?

The greatest actors are those who can disappear into several different types of roles. My short list of such (most of whom are notably missing from the list of previous Best Actor winners) are: Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Viggo Mortensen, Robert DeNiro (formerly), and Sean Penn. I'm probably leaving a few out, but these are the best chameleons I can think of. (For brevity's sake I'm mentioning only actors here, not actresses, among whom there are also several still-active greats.)

Daniel Day-Lewis actually won an Oscar for his portrayal of paraplegic Christy Brown in My Left Foot, the type of tremulous-performance-in-an-underdog-role the Academy smiles upon. But he was also quietly -- and romantically -- heroic in Last of the Mohicans, he was desperate and out of place in In the Name of the Father, and was a bully in Gangs of New York. And he went into each of those modes convincingly. He also played refined upper class English in Room With a View. (That may have been the most boring movie of all time, but at least it was another opportunity for Day-Lewis to show his versatility.)

Johnny Depp also knows how to underplay as well as overplay a role. In Donnie Brasco, it was his ability to play conflicted so well that gave the movie its power. In Blow, he played a 1970's stoner perfectly, getting the slow, somewhat monotonic speech that typified the low grade machismo of the era. And he transitioned from that to irresponsible and strung out as his character gradually became addicted to the cocaine he dealt. In Edward Scissorhands he was weird and removed. In Finding Neverland, he played writer J.M.Barrie as repressed and diffident. Depp surprised everyone by making Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean feyly playful. If you were unfamiliar with Depp, it would be impossible to imagine the guy playing Donnie Brasco as Edward Scissorhands, or the guy playing J.M Barrie as Captain Jack. That's the definition of a good actor.

When I first saw Don Cheadle, in Out of Sight, he played a jive-talking con. He was perfect in the role, but I just assumed that he was perfect for the role (i.e., typecast) as opposed to in the role. I then saw him in Mission to Mars, where he played a scientist who had been marooned alone for years on Mars. He came across just as desperate and crazed as you would imagine someone in that situation might. In The Rat Pack he channeled Sammy Davis Jr. perfectly. In Ocean's Eleven his role did not call for great acting, but he did do a very credible Cockney accent. Likewise, in Hotel Rwanda he did an Ugandan accent well (I'm unfamiliar with Ugandan accents, but to my untutored ear it sounded good). I once heard that when Cheadle appeared on the television series Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the directors were astounded because all he ever needed to get it just right was one take -- which is unheard of.

Leonardo DiCaprio first gained fame as a teen idol after Titanic, but was actually able to surmount that early barrier to great acting. (Please, name another teen idol who became a truly great actor.) He first showed his talent in This Boy's Life, as the abused son of Robert DeNiro. In Catch Me If You Can he played a pathological liar and master of impersonation with just the right tone of glib insouciance. In The Aviator he played Howard Hughes with the appropriate mix of intelligence and paranoia. In The Departed he was one of the ensemble of excellent actors who managed to save the movie from Nicholson's excesses. DiCaprio convincingly showed how tortured a deep undercover cop must feel. (Then again, DiCaprio's seemingly tortured state may just have been a genuine reaction to Nicholson's scene stealing, in which case you can't really give DiCaprio credit.)

It's easy to think that Viggo Mortensen has enjoyed success in the movies just because of his bone structure, and undoubtedly that has a lot to do with it. But he's also an excellent actor. When I first saw him in sitting in a wheelchair in Carlito's Way, playing a sleazy ex-drug dealer, I didn't really notice him. When I saw him in Crimson Tide I thought, nice-looking guy. (He has the kind of Ed Harris-like bone structure that casting directors like their military men to have.) When I saw him in Lord of the Rings, I thought, yep, there's that noble bone structure again -- and he underplayed his role nicely. When I saw him in A History of Violence, I again thought he was just right for the role, although it didn't seem to call for any great acting. It was only when I saw him in Eastern Promises that I fully appreciated what an actor he is. His every movement, his every facial expression, and his Russian accent all exuded Slavic gangster. He evidently traveled to Russia and hung out with some real gangsters to soak up their personalities in preparation for the role. Whenever one hears of an actor who does something like this (Daniel Day-Lewis evidently refuses to leave character while on the set) it's easy to think, what a pretentious idiot. But sometimes it actually seems to work.

Robert DeNiro played deranged in Taxi Driver, an upper class fop in 1900, a gangster with no dignity in Mean Streets, and a gangster with tremendous dignity in Godfather II. He was angry and stressed out in Casino, bullying in The Untouchables, and creepy in Cape Fear. He probably got too much credit for gaining that weight for Raging Bull, his one Oscar win (if getting fat merits an Oscar, there are millions of very deserving but unrecognized Americans out there). But he probably has not gotten enough credit for his versatility. He appears to have slept-walked his way through many of his roles in the past fifteen years (he's mostly turned into a self-parodying Professional Italian). But he was great in his day.

Sean Penn is likewise incredibly versatile. He became famous for his great impersonation of a stoner in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. His portrayal of a treacherous cocaine-addicted Jewish lawyer in Carlito's Way was astonishingly good. I was less impressed with his turn as a mentally handicapped man in I Am Sam, a role which seems easier to play. (Some actors seem to consider their resumes incomplete until they've played a retard onscreen; others must feel their off-screen antics suffice.) I've only seen the trailers for Milk, but in the short clips I've seen Penn is pitch perfect as a man who's unmistakeably -- but unflamboyantly -- gay. Every straight guy at some point in his life jokingly vamps it up while acting gay, and they all overdo it. Most professional actors tend to overplay homosexuality. Even Carson Kressley, of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy fame, didn't seem to know how to act gay without overdoing it. (Kressley is the gay Stepin Fetchit.) But Penn, as usual, is great. He actually got an Oscar for Mystic River, one of his more histrionic (and to my mind, less impressive) turns. Speaking of histrionic, Penn gets as much publicity for his off screen life as he does for his acting. But unlike all the false moves he makes in real life, in front of the camera he's near perfect.

The Academy should take back the Oscars from Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe (who has always pretty much been Maximus) and Michael Douglas (who is almost always some version of Gordon Gekko). Then they should give them to the guys mentioned above who haven't won one yet.

It's really a very simple principle: You shouldn't get a Best Actor nomination, let alone the award, for merely acting like yourself. You should only get one for acting like someone else.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"I screwed up."

With those words Barack Obama acknowledged that he had erred in continuing to push for Tom Daschle's nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services even after Daschle's tax problems surfaced.

Obama explained, "I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules. You know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay taxes."


We haven't had a President who can admit a mistake for at least sixteen years.

Sixteen long years.

All throughout the campaign, every time I heard Obama talk about hope and change, all I could think was, what a bs artist.

But the fact that he can admit fault is in fact a nice change. And it actually gives me some hope for his administration.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In their shoes

It's always instructive to put yourself in someone else's place before judging them. I often wonder how I would react to various situations if I were another race, or if I were a woman. Usually I end up with some sympathy for the other side, even if I don't agree with them. After reading about a crime, I'll ask myself if I would have been able to resist similar temptation in that situation. Or, conversely, if I would have acted heroically in certain circumstances. Sometimes I end up feeling superior, sometimes not. I can safely say I would never have become a serial killer or a Ponzi scheme operator. I can also assure you -- with great confidence -- that had I been in Captain Chesley Sullenberger's situation, I would not have walked the length of the cabin twice to make absolutely certain every last passenger was out. One of the more interesting exercises is to put yourself in someone else's sexuality. Our sexuality is something which is pretty much assigned us. We simply don't have any control over whom we are attracted to. When I talk to guys who make scathing remarks about homosexuals, I sometimes ask them, if someone told you that you had to change and all of a sudden be attracted to men, could you do it? They always answer no. I then point out that homosexuals have no more control over whom they're attracted to, so it's not their fault that they are who they are. (The world seems to be moving towards a more accepting way of thinking on that issue anyway.) There's simply no moral component to attraction. How you treat your sex partners, of course, is an entirely different matter. But no one can be blamed for something they can't help. Interestingly, men tend to have much more concrete fixations than do women. You often hear a man describe himself as a "breast man" or "ass man," and if you notice whom they chase after, you'll usually see they're not lying. Women in general seem to have a more free floating sexuality, and don't fixate on certain body parts, or physical types, the same way. (Some do, but they're the exception.) One of the hardest groups of people to identify with are men who are sexually attracted to children. These men are universally despised, and understandably so. They are also, thank goodness, rare. But they have no more control over whom they are attracted to than the rest of us do. Of course, as I said earlier, how you treat your sex partners has a strong moral component. And any adult who has sex with an underage child will traumatize that child for life. So that adult should rightfully be put in prison. (Once in prison, such men are generally not accorded the greatest respect by their fellow inmates.) The point is, everyone is responsible for his actions -- but no one is responsible for his inclinations. I've always said that if I ever caught someone molesting one of my children, I'd kill him. (Maybe when push came to shove, I wouldn't, but that's how I feel -- rightly or wrongly.) But put yourself in the shoes of a man who is attracted to children. All your life you've found big, hairy, wrinkled adults, with their cynical personalities and bitter hearts, repulsive. And you've found children, with their smooth skin, hairless bodies, and sweet, innocent hearts, so much more attractive. You know that it's wrong to molest a child. But it's the one thing you've always secretly yearned for, the one thing you've always dreamed of and wanted above all else. Would you be content to just look at child porn and masturbate for your entire life? Put it another way. Let's say that you're a heterosexual adult male who is attracted to adult women, but you've been told that any sexual contact between you and a woman is the most hideously repulsive act imaginable, and illegal to boot. Would you be able to go through your entire life without at least attempting to have sex with a woman just once? Because that's essentially what we're talking about here. I'd like to think that if that if my sexuality skewed towards children I would keep to myself. But I can't say I would with absolute certainty.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Big deal

In the past twenty-four hours, several media outlets, including the front page of this morning's NY Post, have run headlines announcing that Michael Phelps has admitted the picture of him smoking a bong was real.

Does this strike anyone else as less than front page-worthy news? (If he were in the NFL or NBA, he'd have to take steroids or rape or shoot someone to make the front page.)

Phelps was evidently visiting a girlfriend at the University of South Carolina and bellied up to the bong at a party. Someone then snapped a photo of him. There is now talk that he may lose some of his endorsements.

The funniest part of the whole incident was his apology: "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in the manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

What's funny about this statement, of course, is that it was so obviously crafted by his agent in conjunction with a lawyer. Note that he never actually admitted to marijuana use -- that would be illegal -- he only admitted "bad judgment." The statement says that he acted this way "despite the success I've had in the pool." This implies that swimming fast results in emotional maturity. (Not in my experience.)

Phelps also says that his actions were "not in the manner people have come to expect from me." Phelps has done nothing but hang around casinos, strip clubs, and bars since winning his eight golds. You certainly can't blame him for that, what better way for a rich 23 year old celebrity to have a good time? But it is the behavior people now expect from him. Finally, he promises his fans that it will not happen again. The picture was snapped in November, and it's now February. He just started training a couple weeks ago, up until then it was still party time. I've also heard that even though he's now swimming again, he's still hitting the bars regularly. Somehow I doubt that his partying no longer includes marijuana use.

It's an "apology" full of doublespeak worthy of a congressman caught with his hand in the till. But it also strikes me as an apology which really shouldn't be all that necessary.

I've always found myself feeling neutral about Phelps the person, as opposed to Phelps the swimmer: he seems a pretty average guy who was brought up to be a fish, and whose unique physical attributes allowed him to become the greatest of all time. But average guys do stuff like drink beer and smoke marijuana. The difference is, average guys generally don't get photographed doing it, and if they do, nobody cares. It's just something kids do when they're young. It's more normal to try that stuff than not. (I'm not referring here to the hard drugs like cocaine or speed, which cause damage from first ingestion.)

By 23, most have realized that marijuana is in fact not all that much fun. But maybe Phelps feels he has some making up to do for all the partying he missed while training, during the years his high school classmates were partying. I suspect there may also have been an element of the young-but-famous guy wanting to show his fellow partiers that he was a regular guy. (I've met a few well known people and they all seem to feel obliged to prove their "regularness.")

In any case, there is now disappointment being expressed from certain quarters, since Phelps is a "role model." But what exactly is it that makes Phelps a role model? All those gold medals. And what allowed him to win those? Training, certainly, but there are plenty of other swimmers just as dedicated who didn't end up role models. What makes Phelps special are his 6'4" height, his 6'7" wingspan, his abnormally long torso and short legs for his height, his double jointed arms, his freakishly flexible ankles, his wide shoulders, his higher than average testosterone levels, and his naturally loose muscle.

How exactly does one model oneself after that?

I've never quite gotten the concept of a "role model." For most young boys to model themselves after Phelps, with his unique configuration, seems a bit of a lost cause.

It reminds me of Nike's old "Be like Mike" (Jordan) campaign. Yeah, just practice hard kid, some day you'll be sailing twenty feet through the air while simultaneously twisting and stuffing the ball.

A young girl might as well model herself after Tippi Hedren. You want to grow up to be that beautiful? Okay, well, hard!

Maybe I'm not giving Phelps credit for his intense focus and for doing the most with his physical attributes, both of which he most definitely deserves credit for. It's just that what sets him apart from all the other equally dedicated and tough swimmers is that he is gifted. The italics are to emphasize that a gift is something received, not earned.

As a swimming fan, I hope Phelps cuts down on his partying and gets back to business. I'm curious to see what he's capable of in some of his off events.

As an ex-young person, I can't get too indignant about his off-hours activities.