Search Box

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Article on David Paterson

The New York Post this morning ran an article on New York Governor Paterson's astonishing lack of work ethic:

Interview with a rebel

This interview with my son appeared in the local paper two days ago:

The writer, John Nash was kind. He inserted a "(laughs)" after a particularly harsh comment to make it sound as if Johnny had been joking, when in fact I don't think he was.

In any case, no one could read this interview and conclude anything other than, that's a rebellious kid. (They'd be right.) Johnny certainly never developed any enthusiasm for the family sport of swimming. But other than that, most of his rebellion is directed against his classmates.

Johnny has told me in the past, "If I have to listen to one more girl talk about what pair of pants she's going to buy next, or how her parents don't give her enough money, I'm going to throw up." On another occasion, he said, "These kids who go to high school parties are so stupid. After they get drunk, all they want to talk about is how drunk they are. What's the point of getting drunk if you're not going to talk about something interesting? These parties are incredibly boring."

Johnny will also occasionally relate the idiocies of his liberal teachers.

For him, the grass has been greener not only on other side of fence, but waaaaay over on the other side -- perhaps all the way down South. Johnny seems to want to identify with rednecks who drop out of school and live in trailers and get in fights and join the army. Of course, he's never really known any of them, which probably has something to do with why he finds them appealing.

My own psychology is not dissimilar. I was sent to a private school, Commonwealth (located on the avenue of that name in Boston.) The school was founded and run by Charles Merrill, who was the son of the original founder of Merrill Lynch. Merrill was stereotypical second generation wealth, growing up with a guilt complex as well as the money. To assuage his guilt, he founded this school.

It was the type of place where people prided themselves on being "open-minded" but were in fact just the opposite. The school conducted a poll in the fall of 1968 to see which Presidential candidate the students favored. Out of the student body of 120, fully 119 supported Hubert Humphrey. I often heard these students talk about what "courage" it took to mouth the liberal platitudes they would recite. In fact the only student at this school who showed any bravery was the one who risked censure by favoring Nixon.

It's hard to come out of a place like that with anything but a visceral disgust for liberals. But I sometimes think that had I been brought up in Alabama, amidst all those hayseeds Johnny finds appealing, I might have grown up to become a liberal, instead of a libertarian. Who knows, Johnny might have too.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Health care summit as symptom of Obama's personality

After the recent White House call for a grand "health care summit," it's hard not to think of that ridiculous dog and pony show as revealing of Barack Obama's self-image. Did he really think that by gathering a group of Democrats and Republicans around a table he would, through the sheer force of his magnetic personality, get them to agree on the most contentious issue facing the country right now, one on which there has been such bitter debate these past eight months?

Obama seems to feel that his words and his charisma can sway anybody. He thought that by acting friendly but slightly censorious he would convince Achmadinejad to give up his nuclear ambitions. Or Putin to stop his Georgian escapade. Or Karzai to stop his corruption. But these are hard-nosed men, not in the least susceptible to Obama's cooings.

The Republican senators who were at the health care summit are also hard-nosed, even if they don't have the semi-dictatorial powers of the three men mentioned above. And when Obama called for them to show more "bipartisanship" (his definition of which is for the other side to agree to his agenda), and they didn't, he became temperamental.

This is a sure sign of a narcissistic personality. The following definition of a narcissism is from

"Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, need for admiration, extreme self-involvement, and lack of empathy for others. Individuals with this disorder are usually arrogantly self-assured and confident. They expect to be noticed as superior. Many highly successful individuals might be considered narcissistic. However, this disorder is only diagnosed when these behaviors become persistent and very disabling or distressing. Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with this disorder very sensitive to criticism or defeat."

By this definition, of course, many politicians could be characterized as narcissists. And when someone becomes President of the United States, it would certainly be hard for him to overestimate his own importance. But has there ever been a President before who has felt that his very magnetism will sway other world leaders to act in ways which they see as counter to their own interests? Has there ever been a President before so "sensitive to criticism" that he complained to a news organization [Fox] which had the temerity to criticize him during the campaign, and then after his election, continued to single that network out for its critical coverage?

This is an oversimplification, but the reason people become narcissistic personalities in the first place is often because they were unloved as children, and the bonds they formed with parents were simply not that strong. (When no one else loves you, you must love yourself.)

Obama never really knew his father, who left the family when he was two. He saw him only one more time in his life, briefly, at age nine. Obama's mother sent him off to stay with his grandparents when he was ten, then left him again when he was sixteen, both times so she could be by herself in Indonesia. If Obama's mother could desert him twice, each time for at least a year, before he graduated high school, that would tend to indicate less than the usual amount of maternal instinct. (Obama himself has said that his mother provided no stability in his background.) None of us will ever know exactly what the nature of the bond between mother and son was, but from a distance, it appears weak. And in general, a weak relationship with one parent and nonexistent one with the other is a fertile background for narcissism.

Narcissists, among other things, tend to have a misguided faith in their own powers of persuasion. If Obama isn't one, he is doing a very good imitation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One of the funnier websites on the net

My son and I enjoyed this website a lot:

The writer's stock in trade is to ambush people who post innocent advertisements on the internet. His approach is a little reminiscent of Ali G. You'll find some of his correspondences funny if you have a sophomoric enough sense of humor (like my son and me).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

But where are his French cuffs?

(The Dalai Lama being escorted out the service entrance after visiting President Obama at the White House)

When the Dalai Lama visited the White House last week, President Obama reportedly gave him a pair of White House cufflinks (available at the White House gift shop for $35.00) as a gift.

What exactly is the Dalai Lama supposed to do with these? Perhaps he could pin his robe together with them. Or perhaps he could pin them directly to his skin, punk-style, as a reminder of the suffering of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese.

We've seen evidence of Obama's unique gift-giving style before. When he received Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain at the White House last year, Brown presented him with a pen holder fashioned from the wood of the 19th century British warship HMS President (whose sister ship HMS Resolute provided the wood for the Oval Office desk). Obama in turn presented Brown with some DVDs of American movies -- which weren't even formatted correctly to play on British television sets.

When Obama met Queen Elizabeth, he presented her with an iPod containing videos of his own speeches.

Obviously, not a lot of thought has gone into these gifts. So, in order to save the White House further effort, I would like to make suggestions for upcoming state visits:

When Prime Minister Angela Merkel of Germany visits, Obama should give her a tie. You know, one of those nice White House-motif ties, perhaps with a USA flag tie pin, of the type which Obama refused to wear during the campaign.

When Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi comes calling, perhaps Obama should present him with the complete DVD set of the Godfather movies -- the director's cut version. (If he waits till they're on sale at Walmart, he can probably pick them up for less than $30.) Oh, and maybe a pair of lifts to put in his shoes.

Perhaps Obama could give Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada a "President Obama magnet," available at the White House gift shop for just $1.50. (No need to spend the big bucks on Canada, and now that Obama is a deficit hawk the twenty or thirty bucks he'll save will help out at the Treasury.)

When Premier Wen Jiabao of the People's Republic of China comes to see how his investments are doing, perhaps Obama could give him a nice White House cobalt money clip (available at the White House gift shop for just $25) in which he can hold his collection of U.S. bonds.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France visits, Obama could present him with an XXXL gray "Air Force One" t-shirt, along with a matching one in navy (available at the gift shop for just $16 apiece). Sarkozy might not exactly be an XXXL, but better too large than too small: at least he'll be able to fit into it

And when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin comes to Washington, perhaps Obama could give him "The White House Cookbook, Secrets from the White House Kitchen" (available for $19.95). This would save the KGB the trouble of having to spy on us in order to obtain those secrets. Then perhaps Obama could throw in "The Barack Obama Presidential Coloring Book" ($5.99) as well.

I hope that helps. Sometimes it's just hard to spend a lot of time thinking of appropriate gifts when you're busy trying to stuff a health care bill down the throats of an unwilling public.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Personalities vs. writers

A friend, Michael Hoffmann, just commented about a recent post, "Dude, when you have time to think, you are really funny! I never knew!"

He was just teasing, but he raises an interesting point: there is a huge difference between people who come across witty in person and those who can do so only on paper.

Michael himself is quite funny in person. He is a Personality: he always has a witticism at the ready. And he always, or almost always, says the right thing. I'm at the other end of the spectrum.

The French have an expression, "l'esprit de l'escalier," or, "the spirit of the stairs." What this refers to is what happens to dinner guests on their way down the stairs after leaving a dinner party: they think of the bon mot they should have uttered during the party.

I suffer from a terminal case. If I could freeze time for ten minutes after every comment by someone else, I'd be the world's greatest conversationalist. But I am not in possession of a time machine, so instead I'm one of the world's worst. This makes me a writer, but not a Personality. (You tend to become the former if you can't be the latter. After all, who would you rather be, a talk show host or one of his writers?)

On the blog I can restrict myself to subjects which will interest others, or at least things they will identify with. In person I'll blab about the weather, whether my cough is getting better, how my workout went, all sorts of things my acquaintances have exactly zero interest in.

Another advantage of the written word for us writers is that we can censor ourselves. In person I have a tendency to blurt out all sorts of stuff I regret the instant it leaves my mouth. At my worst, when in an ebullient mood, I won't even let the other person get a word in. (As happened in a recent phone conversation.)

Writers also tend not to be as good with their delivery. You often hear people complain how electronic communications can be difficult because it's sometimes hard to tell when the other person is kidding. I sometimes have difficulty conveying that distinction even in person.

Another thing that can make people come across dumber in person is wanting to be agreeable; this often makes them dumb themselves down. Often the most intelligent-sounding conversationalists are those who care least about this.

On the other hand, we writers can come across better on paper than Personalities. We know enough to avoid words like "dude," which tend to make one sound dumb.

Got that Mike?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pity the poor comedians, Part II

Three posts ago this blog discussed how today's TV funnymen had hamstrung themselves by making Barack Obama off-limits. Every Sunday the NY Times quotes highlights of the various talk show hosts' wit from the previous week. Today they included this gem from Letterman:

"President Obama declared that he's approving construction of two new nuclear reactors. And George Bush immediately stood up and screamed, 'It's nucular'!"

When a comedian must recycle material that old, it makes him seem a bit tired. And out of touch. And lame.

Yes, George Bush did mispronounce the word "nuclear." Seven years ago. And that mispronunciation got plenty of play at the time, as well it should have. But he has been out of office for over a year now, and in the meantime President Obama has given the comedians plenty of material. Yet they refuse to touch it.

President Obama recently mispronounced the word "corpsman" three times in one speech. He pronounced it "corpse-man," when it should be pronounced "cores-man," (as in "Marine Corps").

Imagine what Letterman or Leno could have done with this: "President Obama paid tribute to a soldier today. Only instead of calling him a Navy corpsman, he referred to him as a 'Navy corpse-man' -- as if he's already dead. Does Obama know something we don't? Is this one of the soldiers he plans to send to Afghanistan? You know, I just don't think this is the best way to raise morale among the troops."

We shouldn't hold it against Obama that he mispronounced a word. We all make mistakes. It's just a little dismaying to see the hypocrisy -- and fearfulness -- of our comedians. They seem to consider any jokes about Obama as radioactive as those nuclear plants he just approved.

A father's job

I saw a great bumper sticker a few years ago: "Embarrassing my children -- a full-time job."

I've taken it to heart. My daughter, from the time she was around eight, has regarded me as a walking, talking embarrassment.

Her state indoor track championships took place yesterday. In the hallway of the track complex, the Marine Corps had set up a pull-up bar challenge, as a way to get the names and numbers of potential recruits. A couple of studly specimens wearing "U.S. Marines" t-shirts manned the post. After my daughter's event, I wandered over and asked what the record was.

"Eighteen," came the reply. "But they're only counted if you go all the way down and you're not allowed to kip up."

I said I was a little old to enlist, but asked if they would mind if I did a little warm up set and then tried for it anyway. They were polite and encouraging (or, from their viewpoint, indulgent), so I jumped up and did seven pull-ups to warm up. Unbeknownst to me, my daughter and three of her friends happened to be walking by just as I was doing them. I let go of the bar and turned around to see her standing there with a look of utter mortification. Her friends looked amused, but my daughter obviously wanted the floor to swallow her up.

"Oh god, I should have known," she groaned.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "Why can't I try it too? What -- I'm embarrassing?" I turned to the Marines. "Am I embarrassing?"

The two Marines read their cues correctly and said to my daughter, "No! He's not embarrassing at all." They were smiling; she looked horror-stricken.

I then forced my daughter to promise to come back in five minutes when I did my hard set.

When it came time, I emptied my pockets and took off my shoes. I wanted to take off my two outer layers of shirts as well, but when I tried to peel them off, my undershirt came off with them. My daughter blanched. It took about ten seconds for me to extract my undershirt, turn it right side out, and get it back on. Ten seconds which seemed like ten minutes to my daughter. The entire time she looked as if she wanted to die.

After I got the undershirt back on, my daughter hissed, "Dad -- your undershirt has holes in it," in the same tone in which another might say, "Captain -- we've just hit an iceberg and there aren't enough lifeboats for everyone."

After I got to six pull-ups, one of the Marines said, "You can do it! Only four more!" They then counted down to ten, as if that had been my goal.

After ten, they started saying, "Come on! You've got one more in you!"

After I got to twelve, I sputtered, "I'm doing eighteen." I ended up doing twenty, but the Marine who was counting disallowed two of them because I had kicked up too much with my legs (he was holding his arm out in front of them).

The best part of the whole thing was that at around number fourteen, I actually heard my daughter say, "Come on Dad -- you can do it!"

Afterward they presented me with a Marine Corps coffee mug for having tied the record. The two Marines in charge were both nice-looking, fit, polite, friendly, and well-spoken. (I guess that was why they were chosen to be recruiters.)

They were also brave, which is why they had chosen to become Marines. I asked one of them his name, and then thanked him for his service to our country. He replied, "Thank you sir." I said, "No. Thank you." (It's hard to look at these fine young men and not think about the risks they will be undergoing when they get deployed.)

By this point my daughter's look of mortification had faded to mere sheepishness.

Which alerted me to the fact that I wasn't doing my job.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pity the poor comedians

The embarrassing gaffes that President Obama has made would ordinarily make him a comedian's dream. But TV's funnymen have been unable to use this material, since they don't like to offend pc sensibilities (quite frequently, their own).

But that doesn't mean we can't still have fun. We just have to pretend it was George W. Bush who made those same lame errors.

Had George Bush referred to the Cinco de Cuatro holiday (instead of Cinco de Mayo) in front of the Mexican ambassador, Jay Leno could have used it in his nightly monologue: "Bush also happened to mention that he was looking forward to being at home with his family to celebrate that famous American know, the Third of July."

(Leno's audience would have tittered with the smug satisfaction of knowing they were smarter than the imbecilic Bush.)

Had it been Bush who had bowed to the Saudi king, Leno might have quipped, in that strangely high voice of his, "It's not King Sultan I worry about. I just don't like the way President Bush bows to Queen Pelosi."

(Kevin Eubanks and the rest of the Tonight show audience would have howled at Bush's cravenness.)

Had Bush joked that he would do well in the Special Olympics, David Letterman could have said, "The problem was, the Special Olympics people didn't contribute enough money to his '08 campaign. But Bush did apologize for his joke. He said that from now on he's going to just stick to making fun of cripples."

(Letterman's effete fans could have chuckled over this telling comment about the Republican's unspeakable insensitivity.)

If Bush relied on the Teleprompter to the extent that Obama does, even using it for his press conferences, Letterman would be sniping, "Hey, at least we can be grateful he knows how to read. I mean, who knew? It's a little like the Wizard of Oz -- Pay no attention to that man behind the screen! So what I want to know is, just who is behind the screen telling him what to say? Rahm Emanuel? Or Edgar Bergen?"

(Letterman's fans would have eaten up this image of Bush-as-puppet.)

Had Bush given the Queen of England an iPod with videos of his speeches, Leno might have chirped, "I understand Queen Elizabeth just can't tear herself away from them. Seriously though, how narcissistic is that? I mean, even Governor Schwarzenegger -- who's not exactly lacking in ego -- doesn't give videos of his movies to the Governor of Nevada. And those would actually be fun to watch."

(Leno's audience could feel superior while shaking their heads and cringing at Bush's unbridled, utterly shameless vanity.)

Had Bush referred to the (nonexistent) Austrian language Jon Stewart would undoubtedly have made sport of it: "I understand that in anticipation of her upcoming trip to Vienna, Chancellor Angela Merkel is brushing up on her Austrian. As a matter of fact that was why historians say Hitler was successful there -- none of the Austrians could understand when he said he was going to invade."

(This vague tying together of Bush and Hitler would have reinforced an ongoing meme with Stewart's liberal audience, the oh-so-perfectly appropriate one of Republicans-as-Nazis.)

Had Bush written a letter thanking a constituent for his "good advise" on quitting smoking, Stewart could have said, "If only now he wouldn't take 'advise' from Joe Biden, we'd all be better off. And in a related story, Bush has been declared eligible to compete in the Special Olympics after all."

(Stewart wouldn't have had to worry about being called to task by the New York Times for that joke, secure in the knowledge that as long as it's a Republican you're mocking, anything goes.)

Had Bush burned 9000 gallons of jet fuel to plant a single tree on Earth Day, Leno could have quipped, "Forget about this warming trend they're talking about. At that rate it's going to look more like a nuclear winter."

(The liberals could then have laughingly shaken their heads in dismay that those dumb Republicans just don't get global warming.)

Had Bush fired the head of GM even though he had no constitutional authority to do so, Letterman might have said, "In other news, George Bush was disappointed with the World Wrestling Federation's latest quarterly results, so he fired Vince McMahon. Bush said it was time to shake up the place -- you know, throw a few bombs in there. So he installed his old buddy Bill Ayers."

(All the liberals watching the TV at home would have laughed at this reminder of the criminal element Bush consorted with before he became President.)

Had Bush said, "I've been in fifty-seven states, [with] I think one left to go," Leno wouldn't have had to say much. He could have just smirked and said, "Fifty-seven states. You know, I -- I really can't make a joke about that. I mean, that says it all." (At this point Leno would have appeared beside himself, helpless with laughter.) "There's just nothing more to add -- that statement is its own punchline."

(Leno's audience would have absolutely howled with delight at this final, incontrovertible proof that Bush was unquestionably every bit as moronic as they had always suspected. )

But Bush did none of these things. Obama did.

So the comedians must remain mute.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Separate swimming from diving

Yet another swimming article on the Swimming World website:

(This one won't interest you unless you're a swimming fan.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Now that Goldman Sachs is the most hated firm in the world, I'm finding that for some perverse reason I actually enjoy telling people that I used to be a bond trader there.

At some level it almost makes me feel as if I were some sort of minor league badass, and not just another nerdy numbers geek, which is what I really was.

(And still am.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why go to see a depressing movie?

(George Clooney and Vera Farmiga comparing plastic in Up in the Air)

Saw the movie last night. It was pretty much as advertised, a well done movie about a businessman whose job it is to travel around firing people and who has less in the way of human connection than he ought. The dialogue was clever, George Clooney was dapper, Vera Farmiga was worldly, and the acting was good all around. The movie is up for a Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so.

But I didn't leave the theater happy.

Which brings up a philosophical question: why pay ten bucks to get depressed?

If I'm going to a movie, I want to forget about real world concerns and escape for at least for an hour and a half, then leave the theater in a good mood. Even if it's after something as mindless as Avatar. And if a movie does bring up quotidian concerns, I prefer to see them resolved.

I know how unsophisticated (and crude) this makes me sound, but I like my movies the same way I like my massages.

Think of it this way. Alcohol isn't popular because it depresses you; people drink it to feel exuberant. You choose your friends because, at one level or another, they make you feel good -- not because they depress you. Fun people are more popular than wet blankets. So why do people want to see depressing movies?

Do some people have so few downers in their own lives that they need to go to a movie to experience more of them? (Or is it that seeing that other people have worse problems makes them feel better about their own?)

After the movie last night, I had a vaguely disgruntled, was-that-the-way-I-really-wanted-to-spend-my-evening feeling. Thinking about it the next morning, the answer is clearly no. What's the point? (Clooney actually voices a similar thought during this cheerful movie, agreeing with a reluctant bridegroom that there really isn't any point to living.)

Movies like this should come with a label from the Surgeon General: WARNING: This movie may alter your mood for the worse.

I'd heed it.

If I want to look at a middle-aged man who's leading a pointless existence, I can just gaze in the mirror.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Salinger as Boomer icon

J.D. Salinger was in the news again today because of one set of his letters, to a friend in Westport, has just been released. It's doubtful that these will create much of a stir. In fact, after Catcher in the Rye, none of his subsequent books or short stories ever really captured the public imagination.

So why was Salinger such a Baby Boomer icon?

For many of us, Salinger was our first taste of real naughtiness. I remember reading Catcher for the first time at age 13, in 1967. I was struck by the way Holden Caulfield embodied teen angst. But mostly I was tickled by his jaundiced but accurate descriptions of the people he met.

Holden was also the first (literary character) to talk to us using teenage language, something we had never experienced before. And maybe even more importantly than that, Holden was the first to let us know that it was okay to not be in the mood for sex, to feel like an outcast, and to feel disaffected and depressed.

When my son read the book, he was lukewarm. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate its wit. It was more that today's teenagers, if they ever get around to reading the book, have already been exposed to so much else in the way of revealing and confessional pop culture. When we Boomers grew up, we didn't have Howard Stern or the internet or 500 cable channels or cell phones by which we could transmit nude pictures of ourselves.

So Salinger doesn't loom large in the collective psyche of people under 30 the way he did for us.

Over the years, Salinger has been a living connection with our past. And his Garboesque public persona effectively froze him in time. The little we'd occasionally hear about him made him sound a bit nutty, but that was okay, geniuses are allowed to be a little off-beat. At a certain level it had been comforting to know that the guy who spoke to us so far back in the past was still alive all this time.

His death was a bittersweet experience for us. It was sad to see the legend go (though hardly a tragedy, he was 91). But reading his obituary also brought back fond memories of our youth.

Salinger's gone, but we'll always have his book.

Evidently I'm not the only one who feels this way: Catcher is currently ranked #12 on Amazon, behind a handful of recent releases. I'm guessing the average age of those who propelled it there is north of 40.

Fool me once, shame on you...

A conman's modus operandi is to fleece a victim, and then move on to the next one. He can't keep fleecing the same victim, because that victim is wise to him. And because that victim will inform on him, the con man must move to the next town, or even next state, where he can ply scams anew.

This is why the Presidency is not a good job for a con man. Once the public has caught on to your dishonesty, you can't exactly move to the next state. After your actions have belied your words a certain number of times, people are less inclined to believe you, no matter how smooth a talker you are. Even if you half-believe your words yourself.

Barack Obama, after having said he believed in the public financing option, after having campaigned as the post-partisan and post-racial President, after having said that there would be no lobbyists in his administration, after having said that there would be no earmarks in any bill he supported, after having said that all negotiations on his health care bill would be transparent and shown on C-Span, after having said that he would not support a health care bill which would raise taxes one dime, and after having stated that he intended to choose a Supreme Court nominee who was a strict Constitutionalist, has recently cast himself as a deficit hawk.


Sadly, the type of people who do best at politics (and often, business) are by nature con men. But the narcissism inherent in being good at self-promotion is pretty much a guarantee that you won't be a good leader. Because real leadership requires self-awareness, integrity, and the ability to see both sides of an argument. These qualities tend not to coexist with glibness, self-righteousness, and a strong sense of entitlement.

What would be ideal is a system whereby a group of wise men pluck a somewhat unwilling man from obscurity to be President. As the story goes, George Washington had to be talked out of his reluctance (if not out of obscurity).

I'm not seriously suggesting such a system (who would pick the wise men?) But if it were workable, it would certainly beat our current may-the-best-conman-win system.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Continuation of previous post

One thing I'm always struck by whenever I see a clip of Sarah Palin on the news is that she just doesn't have any of the body language of someone who's particularly intelligent. "Gravitas" is an overrated trait, and in most cases just connotes self-importance. But Palin radiates the opposite. She just comes across....very average. (I understand this is part of her appeal. But it is less than confidence-inspiring in one who aspires to be the leader of the free world.)

She gave a great speech at the Republican convention. Remember "the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom -- lipstick" and "A mayor is a community organizer who actually does something"? But even then, she came across like a spunky actress with an IQ of 110 delivering lines written for her by a screenwriter with an IQ of 150.

Which, basically, is what she was.

Take away her scriptwriter and you're left with the Katie Couric interview.

Speaking as one sympathetic to the Tea Party spirit, I have to say there is just nothing about Palin which conveys intelligence. Of course, her getup doesn't help either. Call me sexist and superficial, but if Abraham Lincoln had posed for an 1864 daguerrotype with eye makeup, plucked eyebrows, lipstick, bangs, and those cute little glasses, he probably would have appeared a twit as well.

Especially if he wore that big Tweetie Bird smile.

None of which is to say that Palin isn't hot.

Do smart people look smart?

(Top Nikola Tesla; second from top, you know who; right, the young Leo Tolstoy, and below, the older version)

Upon meeting someone new, sometimes you get an immediate impression of intelligence -- even before hearing them speak. Certain people just radiate brains.

Facial expressions have much to do with it. A mouth which constantly hangs open generally does not broadcast intelligence. Vacant eyes can reflect either dullness or sociopathy. But an alert expression, and keen eyes which move quickly and seem to take in a lot usually convey intelligence. (And a certain sparkle to the eyes often connotes a sense of humor.) An intense look can mean intelligence, though it can also denote one of the more minor forms of insanity, such as bipolar disorder.

(Of course, after the first few sentences we hear out of someone's mouth, as we quickly learn to associate that person's face with a certain level of insight and logic and wit, and the individual features and overall facial expression soon matter less.)

I've included a couple pictures of widely recognized geniuses as examples. Again, there is the same problem as with serial killers: a photograph taken when very young conveys little, and there is a wide variance between photos taken when older. Plus there is the prejudicial effect of already knowing who someone is. When we see a picture of Albert Einstein, we can almost feel his genius radiating out from the photograph. But if we didn't know who he was, and we saw a snapshot taken right after he had woken up, might we not mistake him for just another bleary-eyed old wino? And if, 100 years ago, this old wino had come up to us on the street to tell us that gravity bends light, might we not have thought him crazy as well?

Nikola Tesla is the main inventor of the radio, his patents made AC power commercially viable, and he contributed to the development of robotics, radar, and computer science. He was also said to have had a photographic memory, being able to memorize entire books at a time. The picture of him above shows a level, piercing gaze; it is easy to imagine one would think him intelligent (if a bit foppish) from just that picture.

I've included two pictures of Leo Tolstoy just to show how photographs vary, and how character emerges later. The picture of him as a youth shows someone who could easily be, well, developmentally disabled. The picture at left shows a powerful face with a great deal of intelligence and character: even Tolstoy's beard seems full of IQ points. (At the same time, if you didn't know who he was and were told he was one of history's worst serial killers, that wouldn't be hard to believe either.)

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw. I've known people who look smart but are dumb, and the opposite. But there is still a certain look which I associate with brains, probably best typified by these pictures of Tesla and the older Tolstoy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do serial killers look like serial killers?

(Left, Joel Rifkin, who was convicted of murdering nine women in New York city from 1989 to 1992, and who confessed to murdering eighteen; above, Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who murdered at least four of her patients at a VA medical center in Northhampton, Massachusetts by injecting them with epinephrine)

There is an old expression: after the age of fifty, you're responsible for your own face. (Meaning, by that age, your personality emerges on your face.)

I had been thinking of trying to determine whether that is true, using serial killers as a focal point. But there are two main difficulties. The first is that most serial killers are arrested well before the age of fifty, before their character has a chance to be fully etched onto their faces. Secondly, there is simply too much variation between photographs: you can manipulate the impression you want to convey simply by choosing the right shot (as I did above, by using high school yearbook photos). And many of the available photographs of serial killers are either mug shots or pictures taken during their trials. Under those circumstances, many of us would look like feral animals as well.

There's also the difficulty of separating ourselves from our previous impressions of infamous killers. Few could look at a picture of Ted Bundy and not see an evil face. But that's because we're already familiar with him and have learned to regard him as evil incarnate. If we didn't know who he was, we might just see a handsome face -- as so many of his victims did.

In any case, if you're interested in the subject, you'll find the following website interesting:

(Just highlight it and copy it to your address bar.)

Once you're there, click on "Enter Gallery" and there are pictures of 66 serial killers. (I suppose 666 would have been a more appropriate number.) If you're really fascinated by sociopaths (as I am), click on the "Profile" underneath the photo to get more details about their lives. I was surprised by how many of these killers I, a connoiseur of these creatures, hadn't heard of before.

Some of the killers look like killers, with faces that seem to reflect equal parts lust and inhumanity. And some look just plain creepy. But many of the killers look like regular people from various walks of life. A handful could pass for investment bankers (on Casual Friday). There are a sprinkling of truck drivers, a few Kiwanis-looking types, some drugged out rock and rollers, two or three Ma or Pa Kettles, some football players, some regular suburban dads, a couple of mountain men, and even a small group of Eagle Scouts. A good portion of the killers look more like mugging victims than muggers. And some of the pictures remind me of those mug shots you see of otherwise-glamorous Hollywood stars who've been picked up for DUI -- which illustrates my point about the variation between photographs.

So the moral of this story is, a serial killer is as likely to look like one of the three little pigs as the big bad wolf.

Be suspicious of everybody.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Groundhog Day

Since it was actually Groundhog Day just a few days ago, now seems as good a time as any to analyze exactly what it is that makes me -- and everyone else -- love the movie so much.

For the two percent of you who've never seen it, the movie is about an egocentric weather reporter, Phil Collins, played by Bill Murray, who goes to Punxsutawney to do a broadcast on the groundhog's annual prediction, but then gets stuck in the same day over and over. No matter what happens that day, the next morning he wakes up in the same bed and breakfast, and it's once again the day he's supposed to do his show. (Get it? Phil Collins -- Punxsutawney Phil?) After many days of this, he finally becomes nicer, and then, after finally comporting himself perfectly for the entire day, the spell is broken.

After you've seen a movie enough times, it becomes hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role. That is certainly true here, as it's hard to imagine anyone else being as incredibly condescending and mean -- yet funny -- as Murray. At age 42 (the movie was released in 1993) Murray manages to look completely dissolute and world weary, even when spiffed up for his weatherman gig.

Bill Murray's initial frustration at at being stuck in Punxsutawney goes through several stages. (I know, a reviewer is supposed to refer to the characters by their role names, but I find it easier and more evocative to refer to them by the actors' names, since that's how we think of them anyway.) At first he's merely extra rude to everyone he encounters. Then Murray tries to commit suicide, one time after kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil itself. But he still wakes up the next morning in the same place. Next he cynically uses his advance knowledge of how the day unfolds to seduce a pretty girl and steal money from a Brinks truck.

Murray tries to seduce Andie Macdowell (who plays his producer) the same way -- by using the information he gleans over progressive Groundhog Days. He gets closer and closer, but doesn't quite succeed. At one point he asks her what she majored in. When she tells him French literature, he laughs and replies, "What a waste of time!" She looks put out. The next day when they have the same conversation, he responds by quoting French verse. She looks enraptured.

In the process of tricking MacDowell to fall in love with him, Murray finds himself falling in love with her.

Eventually Murray just turns do-gooder. That this transition is not completely explained doesn't hurt the movie. It's almost as if he simply gets tired of being cynical and realizes that being good is more rewarding. (Being cynical, while perhaps more realistic, is ultimately no fun.)

The movie is funny and sweet and says a lot about human nature. The locals are portrayed as the kind of real people you might actually meet in Middle America, if perhaps a little more cornball. Their innate goodwill sets Bill Murray's world weary sarcasm off perfectly. There are no villains in the movie save Murray himself, but he also turns out to be the movie's hero.

In a weird sort of way, the movie works mostly for the same reason that a good buddy movie does: because of the contrast between the two personalities. Only in this case the two personalities reside within one individual. The character arc -- that phrase so beloved of screenwriting teachers -- goes further here than in any other movie I can think of. (It goes in the right direction, too: imagine if Murray had progressed from being nice to being rotten. The movie would probably not be as iconic as it is now.)

The movie doesn't try to make a straw man out of the nasty version of Murray -- it actually gives him the best lines, usually the treatment reserved for the hero. This keeps us from feeling as if we're being preached to. The heroic Murray, at the end, is much less funny. (Once again proving that real funniness must be at least somewhat cruel.) But the heroic Murray is the one we've been rooting for.

This is the ultimate Golden Rule movie, and also the ultimate Carpe Diem movie, made palatable by its masterfully comedic structure.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Tourette Syndrome

I have recently come to the realization that I suffer from Tourette Syndrome.

This syndrome, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is the neurological disorder which causes its victims to engage in involuntary movements (tics) and vocalizations. In its most well known manifestation, the sufferer will yell out swear words, or something equally offensive and inappropriate. People who suffer from the disease have no control over their actions and words.

It is estimated that 200,000 Americans suffer from the most severe forms of the disease, and as many as 1 in 100 have a milder form.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, "Although the cause of TS is unknown, current research points to abnormalities in certain brain regions (including the basal ganglia, frontal lobes, and cortex), the circuits that interconnect these regions, and the neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) responsible for communicating among nerve cells."

My own form of Tourette is slightly different. Often, before I even realize what I've done, I boast. I don't mean to do it -- the boasts just come out of their own volition. I have no control in the matter. (Some misinterpret this as egotism.)

Strangely, the disease manifests itself most frequently in the presence of an attractive woman. (It has also been known to occur in the presence of a man who makes me feel insecure.)

It seems, however, that more than 1 in 100 Americans suffer from this particular gender-linked form of the syndrome. (My guess is that roughly 85 out of 100 males have it.)

I'm a stud!

Oops, sorry, it just went off again. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How insurance rates are figured

When figuring out your rate, car insurance companies take into account how old you are, how much you drive, whether you smoke, and whether you've been in any accidents recently. (If you're a teenager, you get credit for maintaining a GPA of 3.0 or above; teenagers who are responsible enough to maintain high GPA's generally don't drive drunk.) In short, they want to know how much of a risk you are. All this seems quite reasonable.

When you have your house insured, the companies first take a look at the house and figure out its replacement cost. They then determine how flammable it is and whether you live in a flood plain. Then they check to see whether you have firewalls installed, if the smoke detectors are working, and if you have extinguishers handy. This seems reasonable too.

Yet when you buy health insurance, the only things they check are whether you smoke and if you have a pre-existing condition. One would think that people who exercise, who have low blood pressure, who don't drink or take drugs, and who have a body mass index within the recommended guidelines, would get a more advantageous rate than people who don't. But that's not how it works.

I know, this is self-serving for an exercise addict like myself. And I realize everybody would just lie about their exercise regimen. Nonetheless, it seems unfair that people who take care of themselves must subsidize those who do not.

I guess that's a metaphor for all sorts of political issues.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Olbermann skids

News came out this morning that Keith Olbermann's ratings are down 44% year over year. I applaud this development. It's hard to respect a political talk show host who never allows opposing voices on his show (this is how the press operated under communism).

I wrote about this earlier:

I haven't been watching Olbermann recently, but I did hear that he recently said Scott Brown is a racist because he drives a pickup truck.

That kind of "logic" deserves a 100% ratings drop.

Worth a look

This site, despite being cruel -- or perhaps because of its cruelty -- is quite funny:

I don't remember exactly how I stumbled across it. But I do remember my initial reaction upon seeing the address: it can't possibly live up to that title.

(It does.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jersey Shore

Caught the show for the first time this past weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's about a bunch of twenty-somethings of Italian descent who rent a beach house on the Jersey shore and act like dumb college kids on spring break for the entire summer.

The show is pretty much everything everybody says it is. I understand why various Italian-American groups are objecting to the way it "portrays" Italians. I understand, but on the other hand I don't think they have any real basis for complaint. This is not a fictional portrayal. These kids are not delivering lines that some anti-Italian screenwriter has put into their mouths. They're just acting like themselves, with a camera crew nearby. No one is forcing them to do anything they don't want to do.

The episode I saw was actually a reunion show, with a few flashbacks to the summer shows. The cast members seemed inordinately pleased with themselves. At one point the interviewer asked Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino (above, kneeling) if, when it came to girls, he was more interested in quality or quantity. He replied, "Hey, you gotta go through a lot of weeds to get to the flowers." He then grinned with a look that plainly said, "I am the Michelangelo of one liners." The line was neither original nor witty, but that didn't stop Sorrentino from radiating pride. And so it was, with the entire cast, for the entire show.

Twenty years ago, Italians -- like the Irish -- seemed to pride themselves on not being intimidated by blacks the way Anglos and Jews are. Now they -- or the cast members of Jersey Shore, at least -- seem to want to be black. There was a definite black inflection to their voices, their postures, and their attitudes. In another milieu they would be referred to as "wiggers."

The guys in the cast are unquestionably on steroids, which have allowed a bunch of natural runts to parade around as if their muscles were really theirs, and not just store bought. It's enough to make one hope that their testicles shrivel completely and that after they stop juicing they grow breasts. (Notice how I cleverly said "one hope" and not "me hope" -- otherwise I might sound nasty.)

The situation is a little reminiscent of an earlier post ( about how the Gotti crew had obviously been juicing. It's as if a certain segment of Italian-American culture fosters an unrealistic sense of what masculinity requires, and all these men feel the need to pump themselves up to bodybuilder proportions.

Jersey Shore also reminded me of Growing up Gotti. The kids have the same look and the same attitudes, even if the Jersey kids are a tad less spoiled.

That and the steroids made me wonder if some of the Jersey kids were Mob offspring.

I've known plenty of Italian-Americans myself and none have ever acted like this group; but it's this group that seems to command all the attention.

Addendum, 2/15/10: Just happened to catch a little of Godfather II on TV last night, including a couple of the scenes with Robert DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone. I understand that this is a fictional portrayal, but one can't help but be moved by the dignity of the young Corleone. Mario Puzo reportedly based this character on Carlo Gambino, the capo who originally united the Five Families back in the 1940's, and who was by all accounts, in his own way, a great man, even if a criminal. From Gambino to Sorrentino, in just three generations. Carlo has got to be turning over in his grave.