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Archive for the ‘Arts and Letters’ Category

Every year its the same story: a small group of bleeding-heart liberals declare war on (terrible) Christmas (songs). For example, last year Funny or Die created a video revealing how rapey “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is. This year, a couple has re-written some of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to emphasize the importance of consent. Based on this short list, you would be forgiven for thinking that the primary objective in this war is to take down “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Other songs are also targeted, however.

For example, A.V. Club has a regular feature called “HateSong,” in which people talk about songs they hate (I know, it is a difficult concept to grasp). Last year, Dan Finnerty, who is in a band called Dan Band (that, as far as I can tell, performs primarily in movies) discussed his hatred for “The Christmas Shoes.” As you may know, “The Christmas Shoes” was named “The World’s Most Offensive Christmas Song” in 2010, so Dan’s hatred is well-deserved. Dan’s band also recorded a song called “The Christmas Flip-Flop” to make fun of it, which I suppose demonstrates more commitment to hatred than simply writing a blog post.

Whether you’re full of Christmas spirit or need a 500-reindeer-powered Kringle 3000 to help you get out of bed this time of year, here are some additional posts from the past about Christmas:

2015: Life after murder for Kevin Mcallister

2015: ELF ON THE SHELF!

2015: Preferred pronouns on the shelf

2014: Christmas as social control

2013: Christmas at Fox News

2012: Kevin McCallister, murderer?

2012: Toys for rich and poor

2012: Toys for boys and girls

2012: Thoughts on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

2011: Holiday advertising gone wrong (a.k.a. the Folgers commercial)

2009: Christmas spells relief


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For your viewing pleasure, and in light of the response to her video for “Formation” and Super Bowl appearance (backlash to which, according to one Fox News writer, “continues to grow”), here is Saturday Night Live’s brilliant response, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”:

 

Keep in mind that if your workplace is freaking out over the realization that Beyoncé is, and has always been, black, you might need to put on some Adele to sooth them:

 

Update: Here is a more detailed discussion from Doug Hartmann.


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There are some jobs that are typically recognized as difficult. Most people, for example, probably don’t think that they could walk into an operating room and be a successful surgeon. Others, however, are often assumed to be easy. Teaching, for example, is something that many people assume they could be successful at. I’ve also seen musicians criticize those who make electronic music because they are “just pushing buttons.” As with teachers and electronic music artists, assuming that somebody has an easy job devalues the work that they do.  Once in a while, though, people have the opportunity to try something that others make look easy, discovering that it is, in fact, rather difficult.

Enter Super Mario Maker.

Super Mario Maker is a videogame for Nintendo’s Wii U game console. In the game, players are able to create their own Super Mario Bros. levels, share those levels, and play levels created by others. In reviewing the game, Sean Buckley of Engadget summed up his experience nicely, stating:

It didn’t make any sense. I’d dreamed about making Nintendo games since I was 6 years old, but when the company gave me the chance to prove a game design genius lived under my skin, I flopped. It was then that a shocking and heartbreaking realization washed over me: I hate making video games.

My ego didn’t take this realization well. As both a hobbyist gamer and a journalist that covers games, I’ve always humored the little voice in the back of my head that said, “I could do this if I wanted. I could make games.” No, Super Mario Maker has shown me, I can’t — not really. Yes, technically I can construct a stage from set pieces I’ve seen in other Mario games, but I’m not really creating anything. My by-the-numbers Mario levels (a few power-ups to start, some pipes to leap over, maybe a Hammer brother or two and a flagpole at the end) feel more like light plagiarism than original content. Why do I suck at this so much?

Michael Thomsen at the Washington Post focused on how bad others are at creating Super Mario levels, arguing:

“Super Mario Maker” is a bad comedy. Released in coordination with the 30-year anniversary of “Super Mario Bros.,” it indulges players in the fantasy that they’d be good at making video game levels. This sort of self-deception has become common in the age of digital consumption, and while there’s something utopian in “Super Mario Maker’s” appeals to community participation and sharing, the game quickly collapses into a scratch sheet of horrible ideas and levels you’ll regret having played. It’s a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.

So it turns out that the people who have been making the Super Mario Bros. games all these years actually had talents and skills that most of us don’t have. I think this is great! I wish that we could have other opportunities to try what people do in a simplified manner. Imagine Super Teacher Maker where surgeons are given seven hours in a room with 25 eight year olds and asked to teach them math, or Super EDM Maker where a guitar player (or, better yet, a singer!) is given a computer and asked to create music. Maybe then we would start to recognize that everybody has hard jobs, even if our jobs are hard in different ways.

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Following David Bowie’s death on Sunday MTV posted a video from 1983 in which Bowie criticized the station for playing few videos by Black artists. When the interviewer asks what Black artists “would mean to a 17 year old” Bowie quickly notes the implication that he means a White 17 year old and states that he knows what it “would mean to a Black 17 year old” to see him/herself reflected on TV. Also interesting is the interviewer’s frankness about the fact that MTV would play Black artists only if they were popular (and profitable) among Whites.

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A recent Rolling Stone article by Alex Morris focuses on Marlon James, who recently received the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. So far, so good. The third sentence of the article states that James came to the U.S. “with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position,” which didn’t prompt much of a reaction until I read the following five paragraphs later:

By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was “full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself.” When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted.

Okay, so the teaching position was at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and not a high school like the phrase “teaching position” might imply. Teaching is, after all, a big part of the job at liberal arts colleges (even the highly-ranked ones) and there are certainly one-year positions that would involve nothing but teaching. Wait, though, why is James still in Minnesota (Morris makes several references to this fact) if this was a one-year position? Does he still work at Macalester or is he a full-time writer now? Morris doesn’t say, though there is a party with “Macalester faculty and friends.”

And what about his educaton? I know that famous authors sometimes teach at liberal arts colleges (David Foster Wallace taught at Pomona, after all), but Morris doesn’t give the impression that James was a big writing star when he got the position. Wouldn’t he need at least a master’s degree (even David Foster Wallace had an M.F.A.)? Let’s see what Morris says about this: “College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned.” Hmm.

Curious about this, I decided to check out James’s Macalester bioSurprise! James isn’t just a “teacher,” he is an Associate Professor of English. His bio also states that he “graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing.” So it appears that James didn’t so much “write his way out of Jamaica” as “got an advanced degree and a corresponding job,” though I’m sure that the publication of his second book in 2009 helped with the transition to a tenure-track position.

So, to recap, James earned a Master’s degree and got a one-year position at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and then, at some point, not only transitioned to a tenure-track position but received tenure. Readers of Morris’s article, however, could easily presume that James earned a bachelor’s degree and became a “teacher” at a liberal arts college, since anybody can teach at liberal arts colleges and there is nothing else that professors do (if he even is one!). When an entire article can be written about a tenured college professor without even mentioning that he is anything other than a “teacher” it is no wonder that Americans have a poor understanding of what professors do!

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I recently watched the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO, which has gotten good reviews since its premier (currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). As a child of the ’90s and fan of Nirvana, I was interested in a viewing experience that reviews promised would allow me to feel like I had gained some insight into Cobain’s life and death. Afterward, like trying to understand how people can argue that “Sliver” is a great song, I was confused.

The first thing I thought of when the movie was over was The Passion of the Christ. Like Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus’s last days, I don’t think that Montage of Heck would work for somebody who isn’t already familiar with its main character. Also like viewers of The Passion, I suspect that the positive reactions are due less to the quality of the story than to the ability to see a beloved figure’s private life. The fact that video footage of Kurt Cobain as an innocent little boy exists is amazing, but seeing it doesn’t really inform us about what happened later. As a result, my second thought was of Boyhood, which I doubt would have received as much acclaim if the exact same story were told but the adults were aged with makeup and the kids were played at different ages by different people.

Like Boyhood, Montage of Heck may be getting by on the process of its creation. That director Brett Morgen was provided unfettered access to these private materials, even if they are not flattering for those involved. Still, it would have been nice if he had provided a stronger link between those materials and the interviews in the present. When the fallout from the Vanity Fair article accusing Courtney Love of using heroin while pregnant is discussed, for example, headlines are shown stating that Cobain and Love were being investigated by Child Protective Services and that Cobain’s mother fought for custody of their daughter, Frances. Not a single interview, however, touches on whether any of these headlines were true. If they were, wouldn’t a statement from Cobain’s mother about the decision to fight her own son for the custody of his child be fairly important to the story?

The lack of these connections is problematic, but could be written off as a director not wanting to ask difficult questions of the people who are providing him with access to his most important material. The lack of another connection, though, is inexcusable. Throughout the movie it seems clear that Cobain’s passions were music and heroin, yet Morgen never addresses how one affected the other. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player who is featured heavily in the movie, never talks about whether the band was angry with Cobain about his addiction or whether they confronted him about it. He doesn’t talk about whether his creativity was increased or decreased by his drug use. The movie doesn’t even make a clear connection between Cobain’s drug use and his suicide.

In the end, I was left feeling like I didn’t understand Cobain any better than I had before. Maybe, as a Nirvana fan, I just knew most of these things from reading interviews and news stories. I suspect, though, that despite Frances Cobain’s assertion that she didn’t want the movie to focus on her father’s mythology, those who participated in interviews largely didn’t get the memo. For example, Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother, claims that she nearly started crying the first time she heard Nevermind, Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Not from happiness. It was fear” that “this is going to change everything. And I said ‘You’d better buckle up…because you are not ready for this'” seems a bit too convenient. Novoselic’s lack of complaint about the cancelled shows also doesn’t do much to chip away at the myth of Cobain.

We’re left, then, with a look at Cobain’s life from his perspective. (I will say, though, that I really liked the way that Cobain’s journal pages were recreated in layers.) “Read my diary,” he writes to an early girlfriend. “Look through my things and figure me out.” Morgen has looked through his things, but we’re no closer to figuring him out. Maybe the real myth about Cobain, like anybody who has committed suicide, is that we can ever understand the reasons.

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Placemat - FullIf you have ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you may be familiar with the placemat pictured above. It depicts the Chinese Zodiac, represented by twelve animals, which is based on the year in which you are born and, like other zodiacs, purports to provide insight into your character based on that information. I’ve looked at this placemat, or at least placemats like it, countless times while waiting for my food, frequently discussing which qualities seem “true” and which seem “false” and commenting on how funny I think it is that my sister is a dog. My most recent visit to a Chinese restaurant was on a particularly busy night, so I had a long time to ponder this placemat. This led to the discovery that quality control at the Chinese Zodiac Placemat factory has taken a serious downturn since I last paid attention to their work.

Although it is not the first problem that I noticed, the Chinese Zodiac description at the center of the placemat is a good place to start. Here is a closer image:

Placemat - CenterIt reads (sic):

The Chinese Zodiac consists of a 12 year cyale,each year of which is named after a different animal that Impatts distinct characteristics to its year. Many Chinese believe that the year of a person’s birth is the primary factor in determining that person,s personality traits, physical and mental attributes and degree of success and happiness throughout his lifetime. To leam abour your Animal Sign, find the year of your birth among the 12 signs [floating dot] running around the border. If born before 1936, add 12 to the year you were born to find your year.

Okay, so there are clearly some spelling and grammar errors here, but maybe that is the end of its problems. It has been a while since I’ve looked at one of these placemats, so let’s take a look at the animals to find out which one represents me. We’ll start with the dragon:

Placemat - DragonOther than some kerning issues and a missing period, the text isn’t bad. But note the years. The dragon is the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac, meaning that 2012 is the earliest somebody could be born in order to easily find their animal. Unlike anybody who will be born in the next 68 years, somebody born in the 1980s is out of luck. It appears that instead of updating the placemat to end with those born in 2012, it was instead updated to begin with those born in 2012 (maybe the person in charge of quality control at the Chinese Zodiac Placemat factory thought the world would end so none of this mattered?).

Placemat - DogContinuing around the placemat, we see a number of small errors (other than the years), like the warning to dogs (like my sister) to “Watch out fot Dragons.”

Placemat - BoarIn general, things get worse as you go around the placemat. Boars, for example, are told to avoid others born in the same year but left wondering which animals they should seek.

Placemat - RatThen we get to the rat and the wheels basically fall of. Most what?!

Placemat - OxBy the ox. all attempts at correct punctuation have been discarded (along with the bottom of its front legs), There really isn’t that much difference between a comma and a period anyway. right:

Placemat - TigerOur final stop on today’s tour is the tiger. I have worked hard to ignore how contradictory these descriptions tend to be. I think that the basic formula is to give each animal a few good qualities and a few bad qualities, so that they can see the good qualities in themselves and the bad qualities in others. In any event, beware or the Monkey, Tiger!

I have no idea how long the restaurant I visited has been using this placemat or how many they have left in stock, but I think it may be time to spend a bit more to purchase from a company whose placemat quality control person has not completely given up. I’m also left wondering if it is possible that a Chinese restaurant has resorted to using a cheap Chinese knockoff of a similar (but error-free) placemat. How meta of them?

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. With this post and the previous post about Valentine’s Day cards, it is basically like a cheap knockoff of Sociological Images!

 

 

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