“Power Players” on Jeopardy! Out of Touch

Jeopardy!This week on the game show Jeopardy! they are presenting “Power Players,” which is basically media figures. Tonight the show featured evil spawn of an arguably great man, Chris Wallace; proof that anyone can become a doctor and have their own TV show, Dr Oz; and hardly great but the British press are almost always better than their American peers, Katty Kay.

Early on, two “answers” really struck me. The first was, “The tax credit only poor workers qualify for.” The answer (obviously) is “Earned.” The second was, “Keynes’ book ‘The General Theory of this, Interest and Money’.” The answer (obviously) is “Employment.” Not one of these “Power Players” got these “questions.”

This made me think that the reason must be that they don’t have to worry about things like earning money and being employed. These are society’s elite. They don’t need to think about the stuff that occupies the Little People.

When the show started, I wondered, “Why would these people go on Jeopardy! when they might embarrass themselves?” I found the answer very quickly. The “answers” were trivial compared to those normal contestants (“Little People”) face. You know, this is the way it has to be: the lives of these “Power Players” aren’t easy enough.

Jean-Pierre Rampal Plays Francis Poulenc

This is arguably the greatest piece ever written for the flute. It is Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. Here it is played by Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flutist the Sonata was composed for:

And here is the master getting funky with composer Claude Bolling (also on piano[1]):

[1] When first performed the Sonata for Flute and Piano had its composer on piano. Unfortunately, I cannot find a recording of it.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of WritingElmore Leonard is not one of my favorite writers, but I will allow that he has talent. And if forced to choose between Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steele. and Leonard, I’d pick Leonard. Faint praise, I know. It’s no wonder that so many of his novels have become films, because that is about the depth at which he writes. He is the only writer I know who is still able to publish pulp novels.

A few years ago, he published a writing book. Actually, “book” is a kind assessment. In fact, even to call it a pamphlet would be to pump it up. It’s about 500 words: one typed sheet of paper. And at $14.99, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is pretty expensive. Still, the rules are useful.

1. Never Open a Book With Weather

Here he telling writers to get on with plot. Don’t try to set the mood—no one is interested in the mood. Many years ago, I saw Kurt Vonnegut lecture at my school. He provided this same information by saying, “Burn the first three pages of your novel, because you probably used it to describe a sunflower.” Vonnegut also provided another rule that Leonard doesn’t touch on, “Every story needs an Iago.” I don’t believe this, but the advice is good: it makes the writing so much easier.

2. Avoid Prologues

See 1.

3. Never Use a Verb Other Than “Said” to Carry Dialogue

This rule made me think. And I’m still thinking about it. In discussing this rule, Leonard writes, “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.” I do, however, think there are times when something other than “said” is in order.

4. Never Use an Adverb to Modify the Verb “Said”

See 3.

5. Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control

Boring advice, or just useless? You decide!

6. Never Use the Words “Suddenly” or “All Hell Broke Loose”

See 5. See also: cliches, writing of.

7. Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly

Lots of great writers do this. Think: Faulkner. And while I’m on the subject, it really bugs me when people spell mama, moma. Moma is the Museum of Modern Art.

8. Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters

Jack Lord HairI doubt this is a big problem for most writers. I know I describe characters only as much as absolutely necessary. I think people like some notion of what a character looks like. In my current novel, I provide three details about the main character: tall, thin, Jack Lord hair.

9. Don’t Go Into Great Detail Describing Places and Things

See 1.

10. Try to Leave Out the Part That Readers Tend to Skip

See 1.

As you can see, Leonard’s 10 rules are really just 5. Actually, you can boil them all down to this: write only action and dialog. And that’s pretty good advice. But not worth $14.99.

Jean Ferrandis Slums in Santa Rosa

Jean FerrandisI am very poor. It has been many years since I have been to any live concert, much less a symphony. But I received a card in the mail alerting me to an upcoming performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The conductor, Bruno Ferrandis, had brought his brother, flutist Jean Ferrandis, in for the season finale. Being an old flute player myself, I decided to get tickets for the “Discovery Open Rehearsal” because it was cheap.

The rehearsal was not what I had expected. I thought this would be like the dress rehearsal for a play. At one of these, unless the lead actor’s hair catches on fire, the performance continues. The first thing I noticed here was that this was not a dress rehearsal; the musicians were mostly dressed in shorts and tank tops—it was 92 today in Santa Rosa. Then Bruno comes out and tells the orchestra, “Start at measure 22.” Of course, he says it in an outrageous French accent, so it was still pretty cool.

After about 20 minutes of rehearsal, they perform the whole piece: Debussy’s Jeux. It was unremarkable.

Then, Jean Ferrandis comes on stage with his flute. They are going to do the Mozart: the Flute Concerto in D—the lesser of the two flute concertos Mozart deemed to “write” (he did not like the flute, and I can’t really blame him). The first two movements go well enough. Jean is my kind of flutist: clear and accurate with little showiness. Half way through the third—and best—movement, the orchestra stops. I’m not sure why. It seems that Jean wanted to do a little rubato and Bruno forgot. I feel for both brothers. On the one hand, rubato used in that particular phrase worked really well. On the other hand, this is really pushing Mozart—it wasn’t meant to be!

At this point, there was a break. I was really thinking that I had wasted my money. Then the group came back together to perform Ibert’s Flute Concerto. Wow. One of my most favorite pieces in the world is Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. Ibert’s piece is perhaps as good. And Jean’s performance of it was exquisite, even though he didn’t have it memorized. (He seemed to have much of it memorized, but he was still dependent upon sheet music.)

Jean Ferrandis left and the orchestra performed a very capable version of Ravel’s La Valse. It seemed a strange program: 3 early 20th century French works and one of Mozart’s most banal adult works. Truly, it didn’t work, but I suspect that the Mozart was thrown in as a bone to make up for all the airy and dissonant music. It can’t have been that after all these years Jean still likes to perform it; I was bored with it at 17; then again, that may be what distinguishes a great artist from me.[1]

In the end, I wish I had ponied up the extra cash and saw a real performance. But certainly the Ibert was worth the entire cost.

And now for something completely different, a Cuban version of Für Elise:

[1] The D Major Flute Concerto seems to be a signature piece for Jean Ferrandis. On his CV it says, “Leonard Bernstein was so impressed by his performance of the adagio from Mozart’s D major concerto that he remarked ‘It is Pan himself!’ and subsequently composed a cadenza for Mr. Ferrandis.” On the front page of his website, there is an audio clip of the rehearsal of the concerto where Bernstein says this: “C’est pan lui-même!” Also, I don’t mean to put down Mozart. He remains the composer I listen to the most. I just don’t think he was at his best when composing these pieces, fun though they are.

Letter to the Editor

The Cause Eric AltermanI always look forward to Fridays, for many reasons, but especially because Eric Alterman releases his blog post that day where he also has at least one of his own articles and one by Reed Richardson. Last week, I clicked over to The Nation where Alterman keeps his blog, Altercation, and… Nothing! I knew he wasn’t gone for good; he’s an institution: a liberal curmudgeon—and so precocious! He just published The Cuase: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama,[1] which I have, but haven’t gotten to because I am too busy devouring Michelle Alexander’s important The New Jim Crow and I got sidetracked reading some policy candy that I promised myself I wouldn’t read: Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now!

So I figured that maybe Alterman took the week off. This did not stop me, however, from clicking to The Nation on Saturday morning, only to find his new page was up. I was so giddy that I sent off the following missive that he published this week:

“Wehw!” I said, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.

“When you weren’t here on Friday, I thought you had abandoned me!”

“No grasshopper,” Eric Alterman said. “I would never abandon my reading public.”

“Even for a book tour?” I asked.

“Even for a book tour,” he said.

And all was calm.

Alterman appears to like my sense of humor, because this is the second cheeky letter of mine he’s published this year. Or it could be that I’m the only one who writes to him. I like this approach to commenting on written works. The standard method in the blogosphere of everyone with an opinion piling on strikes me as largely a waste of time. The few good comments are overwhelmed in a sea of trash. I would rather go back to the old magazine model where only the few letters deemed worth while are published so that a reasonable number of people would actually take the time to read them. I understand that there is a strong narcissistic aspect to commenting (or writing) in any way. But in the new model, it seems worse because it is so much more useless.

[1] The book is co-written with Kevin Mattson. According to Eric Alterman, Mattson wrote the first draft and Alterman greatly expanded it and wrote every word in this version. My question: why when Alterman does this, he’s the first author in a larger font and when I do it, I’m handed a bit of cash and told to disappear?

Which Came First: Settlements or Farming?


The Neolithic Revolution is the time about 12,000 years ago when humans in a number of places independently stopped hunting and gathering and started to farm. As a result, it is said, humans settled down; they stopped being nomadic. But in an article over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that this view is wrong, or at least more complicated.

They point to two settlements—Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük (pictured above)—where the inhabitants where hunters and gatherers. This makes me wonder why people generally think that agriculture caused people to settle down rather than people settling down caused agriculture. Here are two clear cases in which settlements existed without agriculture.

Acemoglu and Robinson are economists. Their point is that institutional innovation generally precedes technological innovation. I find this very compelling. For example, if I’m a solitary hunter and gatherer, any technology I invent will likely be shared by a limited number of people and thus be much less likely to be integrated widely. On the other hand, if I live inside a group of 500 people, it is far more likely that my innovation will become part of the society.

With this idea of the Neolithic Revolution, people built permanent villages from which they ran their hunting and gathering operations. Over time, people noticed things: seeds grow into plants; we can save the seeds from the food we eat; seeds can be put someplace convenient and close by; in time, things we eat will be abundant someplace convenient and close by. That seems much more likely than that people started farming and this caused them to create settlements.

Fascinating stuff!

We’re Doomed

James HansonWhen I was working in the field in the early 1990s, the concentration of carbon-dioxide was roughly 340 ppmv. I knew it was rising, of course; but I was surprised to read today that it is now just short of 400 ppmv. This is worrying enough, but yesterday, that titan of the field, James Hanson, wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times where he said this:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

I don’t have a lot to add. Hanson goes on to say that we know the science and now it is time to work on the politics.

I have one thing to say about that.

We’re doomed.

Moon: Deeply Affecting Intelligent Film

Moon film 2009I just watched Moon, the film about He3 mining on the moon that stars Sam Rockwell. It is a deeply affecting film.

There are no such things as spoilers. Even films with surprise endings like The Sixth Sense are better if you know the plot. So as usual, I am not going to worry about spoiling this film.

What most struck me in Moon was the relationship between Sam 5 and Sam 6. They lie to each other in the most humane way. For example, Sam 5 has managed to make a call to the original Sam’s house where he finds out that his baby daughter is now 15 and his wife is dead. While Sam 5 is asleep, Sam 6 plays the call log and gets the same devastating information. Think about it: if you learned that you were a clone and that all the memories you have of life had been implanted, you would not deal with it well. Especially if you learned that your spouse was dead. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Later, Sam 6 tries to convince Sam 5 to escape to earth. As an incentive he says, “Maybe you can meet Eve [the daughter] in person.” But both of them know this is impossible. They both know that Eve is grown and that she has a real father. And they don’t let on. It is a sweet moment. And it is this moment and many others like it that elevate this film to something more than an intense existential rumination.

But the intellectual part of the film would be enough to make Moon well worth watching.

The film brings up some profound questions. How do we know who we are? Do we belong to ourselves? After our memories are gone, did we ever exist? And what does it matter anyway? I have no answers.

Moon is really well made. According to Wikipedia, it was produced for only $5 million. I guess this is an indication of how cheap simple special effects have become. The entire film was shot in Shepperton Studios, where so many other fine films have been shot (e.g. Gosford Park and the whole Beckett on Film project). Sam Rockwell is great in the film, but then he always is. He may well be the best actor of his generation. The fact that he isn’t a star says much about how screwed up the film industry is. But any industry that can produce a film as good as Moon is doing okay.

Working for the NSA

The problem with working for the NSA:

That’s part of it for sure.


Just so you know: I think Good Will Hunting is a terrible film—especially coming from Gus Van Sant, who has made a few great films. Of course, what really makes it retched is the script: a child’s idea of “deep.” But it has its moments like the scene above.