2010 - %3, July

Elections in the Garden of Good and Evil

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

In a paper published this week by open-access journal PLoS ONE, Max Plank Institutue researchers Daniel Casasanto and Kyle Jasmin looked at the association between politicians' hand gestures and the content of their speeches. After examining more than 3000 spoken clauses and 1700 hand gestures from John Kerry and George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 election, they had ample evidence of a pattern: When discussing something positive, right-handers Kerry and Bush most often gestured with their right hands, while southpaws Obama and McCain both used their lefts. And the opposite held as well: If Obama was saying something negative, then, he was more likely use his right hand; Bush used his left. The researchers noted one particularly intriguing application for their findings:

"The hand that speakers use for spontaneous gestures provides an index of their feelings about the content of the co-occurring speech. If listeners can track which hand a speaker uses to gesture, they may be able to receive subtle clues to the speaker's attitude toward the things they are talking about—albeit the clues are statistical, not absolute, and the listener must know the speaker's handedness to interpret them."

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BP Mental Health Break: Real Bear Rescues Stuffed Bear

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 3:37 PM PDT

From AP by way of New York magazine comes word of the most adorable crime ever. A New Hampshire black bear broke into someone's house, ate some pears, drank some water, and then rescued a teddy bear from human servitude on his way out:

According to homeowner Mary Beth Parkinson, the real bear fled when he heard the sound of her garage door going up but "grabbed a stuffed bear" just before lumbering out the door.

See? Don't you feel slightly better already about Mac's latest BP news?

YouTube's Big Gay Fail [VIDEO]

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 3:12 AM PDT

While the Lutheran church has finally reconciled its faith with the shocking reality that members of its congregation and clergy might be gay, it seems YouTube might still need some help from users.

Ryan James Yezak has a prolific YouTube channel, including an online gay reality show, "In the Loop." But, it's his parody of Katy Perry's summer jam "California Gays" (see below for both videos) that struck internet gold—until YouTube slapped it with an adult content warning. Is a video of boys in short shorts dancing with beach balls really worse than one of Katy Perry in an ejaculating bikini? Let's compare the two:

The Long Life and Short Fame of Bluesman Junior Kimbrough

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

For reasons largely to do with music, I stopped off in Chicago this past May on my move from New York out to San Francisco. I wanted to check out Jazz Record Mart, the somber city's best place to find both pre- and post-World War II blues and jazz records. I wasn't there to buy anything though, as I had decided not to take my record player with me to California. (This decision was simply a logistical one: I was traveling by train and the unspoken rule at Amtrak, for those of you who aren't familiar with our nation's lovably frumpy rail system, is that despite what its website may tell you about baggage limits and checks, you can bring exactly as much—or as little—as you can carry.) But then I found myself inside Jazz Mart standing in front of five records by the truly one-and-only bluesman Junior Kimbrough and I did what any unreasonable person would: I bought them all.

The records weren't cheap, and without a record player, it wasn't clear I was going to be able to listen to them anytime soon. So why did I buy them? My reasoning—and the point of this little anecdote: Junior Kimbrough is just that good. When you happen upon his 1992 debut album "All Night Long" in a record store, you just don't pass it up. Despite his name, Junior was no amateur; he would be 80 years old this week had he not passed away in 1998. He had been playing songs in his tucked-away juke joint "Junior's Place" for more than three decades before recording his first album. Though relatively unknown to most of the world during his lifetime, Junior and his juke joint were treasured by fellow musicians. His birthday seems as good a reason as any to dust off his records and consider why that was.

Bill Murray: Reclusive National Treasure

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 5:16 PM PDT

Bill Murray doesn't do interviews unless he feels like it, which hasn't been often in the past decade. As Dan Fierman puts it in GQ:

The very thing that makes Bill Murray, well, Bill Murray is what makes sitting down with him such an unpredictable enterprise. Bill Murray crashes parties, ditches promotional appearances, clashes with his friends, his collaborators, and his enemies. If you—movie director, journalist, dentist—want to speak to him, you don't go through any gatekeeper. You leave a message on an 800 number. If Bill Murray wants to speak with you, he'll call you back. If his three and a half decades in the public sphere have taught us anything about the 59-year-old actor, it's that he simply does not give a good goddamn.

Fortunately for Groundhog Day lovers like me, Murray called Fierman back. Here's a sample of the GQ interview:

You have a lot of lines in this one that get tons of laughs I doubt were on the page. It's all in the rhythm, the delivery. How do you pitch something like that? How do you make something out of nothing?

I have developed a kind of different style over the years. I hate trying to re-create a tone or a pitch. Saying, "I want to make it sound like I made it sound the last time"? That's insane, because the last time doesn't exist. It's only this time. And everything is going to be different this time. There's only now. And I don't think a director, as often as not, knows what is going to play funny anyway. As often as not, the right one is the one that they're surprised by, so I don't think that they have the right tone in their head. And I think that good actors always—or if you're being good, anyway—you're making it better than the script. That's your fucking job. It's like, Okay, the script says this? Well, watch this. Let's just roar a little bit. Let's see how high we can go.

But you asked how you get the comic pitch. Well, obviously a lot of it is rhythm. And as often as not, it's the surprising rhythm. In life and in movies, you can usually guess what someone is going to say—you can actually hear it—before they say it. But if you undercut that just a little, it can make you fall off your chair. It's small and simple like that. You're always trying to get your distractions out of the way and be as calm as you can be [breathes in and out slowly], and emotion will just drive the machine. It will go through the machine without being interrupted, and it comes out in a rhythm that's naturally funny. And that funny rhythm is either humorous or touching. It can be either one. But it's always a surprise. I really don't know what's going to come out of my mouth.

Fierman's whole interview is delightful; read it here.

15 Minutes with Ariel Pink

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 4:04 AM PDT

Can't stop the press!
But you can break the headlines
Can't stop the press!
Don't wanna stop the mess.
 

—From "Beverly Kills", on Before Today (4AD, 2010)

Ariel "Pink" Rosenberg, the 32-year old Los Angeles-based DIY musician turned indie-rock success story, doesn't much like talking to the media. Coverage tends toward his recording quality (often as lo-fi as it comes) and his live performances (notoriously sloppy). But this belies his music: part '60s bubblegum pop, part '70s prog, part '80s synth—a throwback yet somehow altogether new.

Pink has recorded hundreds of his songs on cassette since the age of 17, and getting the word out around his hometown by handing them to anyone willing to listen. But it wasn't until he passed a tape to a member of the band Animal Collective at a show that he really got noticed. In 2004, the band released a Pink album on its Paw Tracks label. Five years later, he was signed to 4AD—home to indie giants Deerhunter and TV on the Radio.

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Behind Every Mountain Man, Three Harmonizing Women

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

The women of Mountain Man, a group consisting of three lucid voices and the occasional accompaniment of a guitar, playfully write that they derive inspiration from "train engines, mothers, kale, Wild West" and several tree varieties.

While the flora references leave a bit to be explained, the train-engine influence is easy to detect: Beginning with a chord that grows and then softens, "How'm I Doin," a cover off their new album Made the Harbor, emulates a passing locomotive. The mood created by this song transports me to a bygone era full of the windswept prairies, lone wooden houses, and the bleak and beautiful mining towns of the Old West. Other highlights, like "Animal Tracks," "Honeybee," and "Sewee Sewee" present narratives set in woods and tall grasses. The natural world, with its bees and loons and cold creeks, is woven into nearly every song. We'll follow animal tracks, a voice beckons, to a tree in the woods / and a hole in the leaves we'll see / the bright baby eyes of a chickadee.

Old Spice: On a Horse, Backwards [Video]

| Fri Jul. 16, 2010 3:56 PM PDT

Hello, ladies. Look at your blog. Now back to me. Now back to your blog. Now back to me.

If you don't know what I'm referring to, go watch these two short videos right now (or at least before your weekend BBQs):

 

There are 87+ (!!) more surreal, personalized video responses produced in two days by the Old Spice marketing mandarins in real-time response to Twitter questions posed to Old Spice guy. Today my RSS reader overfloweth with serious, thought-provoking analysis of this short, playful "video popcorn" use of social media. My big takeaway from Mashable, The Atlantic, Snark Market, and Boing Boing: Can you imagine if the Red Cross or PETA emulated this style of campaign? Why leave dadaist social media humor—especially dadaist social media humor that successfully sells ideas—to the makers of deodorant?

A Supermax Prisoner's Film From Hell

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 3:56 PM PDT

Last night HBO ran a documentary shot by an inmate living in solitary confinement at New Jersey's Northern State Prison in Newark. The prisoner, Omar Broadway, a member of the Bloods gang, had served 7 years in solitary on various felony charges in the prison's Security Threat Group Management Unit. Sympathetic guards smuggled a camera into his cell, and Broadway shot his footage over a six-month period beginning in 2004. It became the basis for a film that premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival before being acquired by HBO.

In recent years there have been quite a number of television documentaries shot in prisons, sometime in their supermax units; these include the National Geographic Channel's Lockdown series and MSNBC's Lock Up. But as a review in the Boston Globe points out: "There is a distance to all of them from the inner reality of those institutions. Such efforts are almost always approved by corrections officials, and we see very little of the life those officials don't want us to see."

Broadway's film is something different. Here's more from the Boston Globe review:

Despite limited camera range because of the small opening in his cell door, bad lighting, and jumpy camera work, he presents hallucinogenic sights and sounds of prison life—the remote echoes of voices, blurry frames of cell bars, indistinct figures of guards, inmates in their cells engaged in furious shadowboxing...

Most shocking are the protests by prisoners who refuse to return to their cells. They cover themselves in plastic to minimize the effects of pepper spray from the guards in riot gear, who charge in force. The guards quickly overwhelm the prisoners and beat them on the floor. Broadway chronicles a number of these ghastly rituals. The prisoners know what to expect, yet wait for the onslaught anyway, out of bravery or nihilistic resignation.

[The film] one chronicles the appalling prisoner abuse by guards as well as the terror of the officers working there. The guards are a gang in their own right, formed to protect themselves from very dangerous men who are behind bars 23 hours a day. There exists a vicious intimacy between the two camps.

Perhaps the saddest chapter in the film is what happens once the footage is smuggled out—though after covering this subject for a while, I can't say that it surprises me.

Broadway expects outrage from the public when it sees the footage. Not a chance. A local network affiliate airs some of it without result. Oprah Winfrey never responds to a request to air it. Broadway's mother tries to sell DVDs of the footage on the streets. She sells 32.

Below, in the trailer, are a few shots from An Omar Broadway Film:

This post also appears on the Solitary Watch blog.

Reading, Rapping, and Arithmetic

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

The only thing I learned from Paul Edwards' new book, How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC, was that I can't rap.

This will come as no surprise to those who know me—and really, it probably isn't all that surprising to those who don't. Because if you concede that hip-hop is an art form, then—unless you belong to Malcolm Gladwell's How to Fall Asleep at Night Despite Your Shortcomings club—you probably also concede that rapping is a skill granted to a lucky few, gifted people. Just as most of us can't paint landscapes that would ever see the inside of a museum, most of us simply can't rap very well.

In 1931, logician Kurt Gödel demonstrated his now-famous Incompleteness Theorem, proof that in whichever branch of mathematics you study—geometry, arithmetic, set theory, etc.—there will always be truths that you cannot prove. His logic (pun intended) is surprisingly simple. And there's a great explanation here that I'll try to summarize: