Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I posted something a while back asking for podcast suggestions and was met with reaction akin to a roomful of crickets. OK, to be fair, a roomful of crickets plus one comment with a very generic suggestion and one email with some quirky suggestions that didn't really do it for me.

So I had to go it alone, but the good news is that I found some good stuff. Here are the podcasts I've been checking out that I recommend (all available for free on iTunes):

  • Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing: This is a short irregular podcast, approximately 5 minutes each, with about 20 episodes available to date. Grammar Girl is a professional tech writer, and each podcast tackles a practical grammar issue. The tips are basic, but they provide nice refreshers and often nice mnemonics for keeping them straight. And in my experience even people generally mindful of grammar have certain blind spots or rules they just can't keep straight--personally, I highly appreciated the primer on that vs. which. Some episodes are not pure grammar either, but deal with topics such as interviewing or proofreading. Highly recommended.
  • KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic: This podcast is even more irregular, with only a handful of episodes out right now. It's roughly a half hour set of one musician or band with a little bit of interview. The guests are indeed eclectic. I've listened to the Guster and Camera Obscura episodes. I highly recommend Guster, sort of recommend Camera Obscura, and in general recommend perusing the episodes for ones you might like rather than subscribing.
  • KCRW's The Treatment: This is film critic Elvis Mitchell interviewing someone in the film industry for approximately a half-hour. I listened to the Matt Dillon episode, and it had the feel of a Will Ferrell as James Lipton Inside the Actor's Studio. It was downright scrumtrillescent. Other episodes might be better. Not particularly recommended based on small sample size.
  • New York Times Times Talks: This is a series of approximately semi-weekly hour-long chats with someone in the news, though many of them seem to be entertainment figures. I listened to the Howard Dean talk, and if they're all that good, then you should subscribe. I'm also going to check out the Joan Didion episode. But I personally find it hard to get interested in some of the topics. Maybe recommended.
  • NPR All Songs Considered: This is simply an irregular 20 to 35-minute broadcast of various eclectic songs, some episodes with a theme and others not so much. Check out the contents of individual episodes, and you'll probably find some gems.
  • NPR Books and NPR Pop Culture: These are weekly half-hour-ish collections of NPR stories on the relevant topic. Books has a lot of author interviews, and is a nice way to hear about what's being published in a variety of areas, while Pop Culture is generally oddball stories. I've actually subscribed to these, and they're worthwhile. Recommended.
  • NPR This I Believe: These are weekly 500-word statements by a variety of people outlining their personal beliefs, and they run about 4 minutes each. I haven't made up my mind yet about this one, but the one by the autistic woman who made a career out of designing more humane slaughterhouses is not to be missed.
  • Slate Explainer: Slate takes a current news story and finds a bizarre question that requires more research, and presents an answer. For instance, faced with North Korea's declarations about nuclear warheads, they research how it is that a small cadre of folks learn (admitted strained) English in that insular country. Or they explain how museum professionals would fix a Picasso that you've accidentally punched a hole in, or what a protest at Gallaudet University sounds like. The answers are inevitably as entertaining as the questions. Highly Recommended.
  • This American Life: The highly acclaimed hour-long weekly radio series is now available in podcast form. The only catch is that you can only download the current episode for free; back episodes cost 95 cents. I've only listened to one episode, but on the basis of that episode I plan to make it a habit. Recommended, even though the one at a time thing annoys me.
  • The Folkways Collection: This is a 24-episode history of one of the 20th Century's more unusual record labels. Each hour-long episode discusses part of that history, focusing on an artist, a genre, or some behind-the-scenes aspect. The Folkways label collected all sorts of off the beaten path music--folk, country, world music, spoken word, jazz, etc.--from 1948 until the early 1970s, and it's now housed as The Folkways Collection of the Smithsonian. I'm picking and choosing on this one, having listened so far to the introductory generic history of the label, the country and bluegrass episode, and the Phil Ochs episode. I don't know how many more I'll check out, but this is a nice collection of the music itself along with personal biographies and other music history. Recommended if and only if any of this sounds particularly appealing to you.
  • The Loveline Archive. OK, I lied, this one isn't on iTunes. But it's years worth of complete episodes of what was the best radio show on the planet until Adam Carolla left to host what's probably the new best radio show on the planet. Each episode has the commercials removed and runs about 95 minutes. I don't know how legal this is and how long it will stick around, so if you love Loveline 10% as much as I do or more, you should start grabbing episodes now. Right now. Go. I'll wait.
The bottom line appears to be that if you're looking to find general interest podcasts, going to iTunes and looking to a handful of providers (NPR, PRI, KCRW, New York Times, CNN, PBS) will provide you a lot of good stuff, and following the "Listeners Also Subscribed To..." box will get you beyond that small group.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Big sports weekend, so let's summarize where I stand:

  • Michigan football survived what should be its last true test before the monstrous November 18 Ohio State game. This was a really tense game, but the defense again proved to be dominant. Northwestern and Ball State at home and Indiana on the road does not sound like any problem for a very good and a very steady team. If this does play out as everyone expects, one of the rivalry games on everyone's very very short list of best American sports rivalries will be played for the biggest stakes ever this year--and possibly again on January 8th if it's a super-close game and other dominoes fall right.
  • USC didn't play this week. In the next six, though, the Trojans play two conference road games, three consecutive ranked teams at home, and in-city rival fUCLA. Even as a fan I think it's unlikely the team gets through this stretch to finish out 12-0. Cal is the most obvious pitfall, but my hunch is that someone else does the deed--that USC over-focuses on that one and trips up against Oregon, Notre Dame, or even Oregon State. And this is too big of a rivalry for UCLA not to knock us off one of these years.
  • The entire preceding paragraph may simply be my denial of the possibility of a Michigan-USC championship game, which could make my head explode. By January 8th, I'd make Harvey Dent look well-adjusted and focused. I can't even think about this any more right now.
  • Pitt football. Ugh. Yeah, losing to Rutgers this year is different, but it's still losing to Rutgers. The winner here had a chance to play into the pre-ordained Louisville-WVU storyline for conference supremacy and a BCS game. The loser probably gets a ticket to whatever they're calling that Charlotte bowl now. That's us.
  • Beth-Center football. Go, go go, go you mighty Bulldogs! By virtue of a touchdown pass on the last play of the game, the Bulldogs knocked off Fort Cherry--the cradle of NFL coaches--for their first conference title in 12 years, setting up a possible run at their first WPIAL title game since I was in seventh grade, or possibly even first WPIAL title since 1975. In retrospect I should have put this at the end, because you've probably all stopped reading this part.
  • Steeler football. OK, here's what it comes down to. At 2-4, the Steelers play at Oakland and home against Denver in the next 2 weeks. Win both of those games and the season is back on track; lose either and it's over. The second half of the season features 5 divisional games, so if we're within striking distance then we have a fighting chance. But we also have Carolina and New Orleans, and a suddenly resurgent Tampa Bay. At 3-5 we would have to go 7-1 and pray, which is probably too much to ask. But 4-4 with a lot of offensive momentum and we'd be a team to be reckoned with. Note: there will be absolutely no reckoning if we don't learn to hold onto the goddamn football--12 fumbles in six games, losing 7, is way too many for a team that expects to do anything.
  • The World Series. I have to admit that I'm very torn on this one. On the one hand, I have no horse in this race and many of my friends are Tigers fans, so it would be nice to see the Tigers win for them. On the other hand, my National League pride is starting to get exercised much as my AFC pride was in the mid-'90s when I wanted an AFC team--any AFC team--to win the Super Bowl finally. At least the streak of sweeps has ended at 2, and I'm happy for that. But here's the thing--since 1990, only one NL team that existed in 1990 has won a World Series: Atlanta in 1995. The NL has only four total titles in that time period. I would really like to see the original 8 NL teams in particular reassert themselves. Of course, I'm not particularly holding my breath for the team I really want to see re-emerge. But maybe that's the final argument for cheering for Detroit--sucking for a very long time does not mean sucking forever. I think that's what they're calling the team highlight video this year.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I am starting to get to the point where people who don't know me quite so well and who probably don't know about my Weight Watchers odyssey are pointing out to me that I am losing weight which, of course, I knew, but it's nice to hear. The problem is that I'm really bad at taking compliments--I never know quite what to do when receiving a compliment of any kind, so I mutter "thanks" and try to either minimize it ("oh, so and so is really the one who did the work") or turn it back around ("no, you're the smart one, I just got lucky"). In this case, it's a little hard to do. To minimize would be to turn my back on my largest current preoccupation and thus would be self-denying in a really awkward way. Turning it around doesn't work either:

Person X: Hey, you're looking thinner!
Me: Thanks, you're looking more, um, well, antediluvian
Person X: ?!
Me: Gee, look at the time....
So I'm either going to have to take the statements as factual assertions rather than compliments ("Hey you're looking thinner." "Yes, yes I am.") or I'm going to have to learn how to take a compliment. If you have any suggestions about a third option that is even remotely socially acceptable, I'd love to hear about it.

I've also decided that if I'm going to force my continued obsession on both all of my readers, the least I can do is provide the nitty-gritty details. So you can now track my progress in the "Weight Tracker" heading on the right. Publishing weekly status updates on myself seems a bit too much like the WW Message Board People who scare the bejeezus out of me, but I'm going to call it a necessary evil and move on. And of course, feel free not to read it either. In fact, I'm still not sure why anyone reads any of this at all--perhaps that's because (at least in a roundabout way) I consider it a compliment. So thanks. You're all looking rather antediluvian yourselves.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I've been working my way through a fair number of Netflix recently; here are the last several:

  • Secretary. What I really like about this movie is that you feel as though everything you know about movie history tells you that these people cannot have a happy ending, cannot fail to be punished for everything that goes on in the first 90 minutes, and yet it turns out this movie has a different sensibility. Also, Maggie Gyllenhall is hot. I generally don't like Spader, but he's fine here.
  • The King of Marvin Gardens. The first half of the '70s gave us some of the finest movies of all time. It also gave us a whole lot of semi-incomprehensible weirdness. This is much closer to the latter. With Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Ellen Burstyn you'd expect a whole lot more; instead, you get a general sense that life is one big scam, especially if you live in Atlantic City, and that some chicks are just crazy. Not recommended.
  • Match Point. I suspect that the people who say this is the best Woody Allen movie in years are right, though I haven't seen many of his movies over the last 7-8 years, so I couldn't say. But everything is good here--the story, the little details, the music, etc. And though I'd never think it possible, the Woody Allen imprint is strong even without an on-screen appearance and without a New York setting.
  • sex, lies, and videotape. This is one of those movies that has become better known for puns based on its title than for the content. It's a shame, because there are four really well-written characters here--none of them totally likable, none of them totally villainous, all of them certainly damaged. Personally, I especially liked underrated late '80s/early '90s hottie Laura San Giacomo as the little sister who seems like the loser in life, but she is actually the one her older sister defines herself against. Again, likable movie despite the Spader; maybe I'm coming around on him.
  • I Heart Huckabees. Indeed I do--I reveled in the weirdness here. This seems odd to me, because there's a very Wes Anderson-ish tone here, and I generally dislike his movies--and further because my deep-seated hatred for Jason Schwartzmann generally goes way beyond anything I've ever thought about Spader. On the other hand, it's not Anderson but David O. Russell, who I generally do like. Go figure.
  • Silent Running. More with the early '70s weirdness. I really enjoy the pre-Star Wars scifi, but this one is simply a steaming pile of crap. It's not even a fun pile of crap. There's some sort of eco-friendly hippie message, but one that you can't really get behind unless you think it's ok to kill innocents in its name. Plus the plot doesn't even make sense. I can't think of any reason to recommend this at all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I enjoy karaoke nights more than anyone should. I get that. I wish I could impart to the people who roll their eyes when I mention karaoke (or, at least, at the frequency with which I mention it) the enjoyment that comes from standing on stage at 1:45 a.m. and having an epiphany. In this case, the epiphany was that yes, it does make a lot more sense to face these kinds of things with a sense of "poise and rationality" than it would to face them with "poisoned rationality."

* * *

A couple of weeks ago I was walking around Borders trying to find a novel and having very little luck. I've always been a pain in the ass at video stores, libraries, and book stores because I go into option paralysis at the overwhelming number of choices available to me, and I either stand around dithering until someone or something forces me to make a decision, or I simply flee. But the last few times I've wandered into a literature section, I actully find myself having trouble finding anything I can imagine buying and then reading. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I hope I snap out of it. This time was no different.

After failing in fiction, I took one last look at the display tables and noticed the series of "Best American x of 2006" collections. I browsed several of them and for some reason (probably having to do with the presence of David Sedaris and P.J. O'Rourke and a general feeling that this is a genre I should have tried long ago) I picked up x = Travel Writing. I didn't know what to expect, but after finishing what I had been reading at the time, I dove in.

The bottom line: I loved it. Out of the 26 stories anthologized, at least 20 were winners--tales of fishing in Mongolia, skiing in South Korea, seeking out seasonal soups in Ecuador, retracing the footsteps of a 19th-century Scottish explorer in the Libyan Sahara, and sailing across the Atlantic in 25 (not-so-)easy steps. The tales followed an octogenarian down the rapids of the Grand Canyon, followed an American expat leading "first contact" trips into the Papaun interior, and sought out the tallest man in the world in a Ukranian village. Perhaps best of all, they came one after another--the stories more fun in juxtaposition than they would have been individually.

The stories made me want to go all sorts of places, of course, as travel writing is probably always designed to do. OK, a few of these stories make you not want to go certain places--fishing in Mongolia immediately comes to my mind, but several stories particularly decry modern air travel in general as well. The story that most made me want to do things was George Saunders' unexpectedly positive story of his trip to Dubai. Not only did it make me want to go to Dubai, but it also made me want to read more George Saunders. So conceivably, the travel book even knocked me out of my fiction reading rut.

* * *

I'm not the type of person who is inclined to look at things that are happening generally to everyone around and assume that they are things that the world is specifically doing to me. But if I were, I'd be inclined to think that the world is telling me that if I'm going to largely avoid winters starting next year, it's at least going to give me a doozy to go out on. As the bold text above this post indicates, it's freakin' October 12th. Right now in Ann Arbor, we are experiencing a snow squall. This is not cool. It also means I have to remember how to deal with winter, and not do things like, when leaving the house to walk over to this coffee shop, carry around a cold soda. Moron. I think my rationality may have been poisoned.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Here's what you need to know about spending your Saturday night at the finest drag bar in all of greater Toledo:

  1. Yes, the large group of women is probably a group of all lesbians, even if some of them look a little too lipstick-ish.
  2. The woman in the Steeler jacket may or may not be a lesbian; lots of women in Steeler jackets just look like that.
  3. If you're not sure of the gender of the person on the dance floor, look for man hands.
  4. The bachelorette party may be filled with hot straight women, and you may be the only unattached straight male in the house, but after they explain the "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" motif of their party and all start smoking, you may decide you don't want to take advantage of those proportions, even if you thought you could.
  5. It's totally not worth it to go just because it happens to be that "bar in Toledo across from the depot."
  6. But to see friends you don't get to see often enough, worth it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Weight Watchers is a pain in the ass. But until/unless I hit a creepy gypsy man's son with my car and he curses me, it's the plan I'm sticking with.

You have the option to be an online member or a regular member who attends meetings. For now I'm online only and I'll probably stay that way; it's hard to imagine that anyone who's read Infinite Jest and Choke could approach the whole meeting thing without a big dose of ironic detachment. If you're not a "meetings" member and you're online only like I am, you don't have a public weigh-in. Instead, you have weigh-in day on your own. The idea is that you pick a set of circumstances and you weigh yourself in the same way once a week--the same scale, the same time, the same general deal with food and drink, same clothes, etc. I've chosen Wednesday morning, at home, in birthday suit, after peeing and brushing teeth and taking pills, but before eating or drinking anything else.

Weigh-in day has several consequences:

  • Your week resets, so your extra "flex" points for the week start again.
  • You input your new weight, with the possibility that your points allowance will drop if you go past an arbitrary round-number threshold; it was disheartening to start knowing that as soon as I lost .2 pounds I would lose a daily point, as I then did at my second weigh-in last week.
  • You will have to get up at your normal Wednesday time even when your first morning class is cancelled. Grrr.
  • You will start thinking about next Wednesday, 7:30 a.m., at approximately 7:37 on Wednesday morning, and at least once every hour thereafter.
  • You will do things like walk toward home from the coffee shop Tuesday night with every intention of getting a burrito, but then decide at the last minute that you want a good number the next morning, so you won't polish off your activity points and weekly flex points, but will instead have pasta and let those extra points, to which you are perfectly entitled, go by the wayside.
  • You will be content, but certainly not satisfied, when you find that you have lost another 1.4 pounds this week, for a total of 4.8 in two weeks, and about 15 since the end of your summer job.
  • You will thus be reminded why you continue not to eat pizza, even though you're pretty sure that you would devour an entire one in 8.3 seconds flat given the slightest provocation.

Monday, October 02, 2006

I mentioned it over the summer, but early last month a book was released by a sort-of, barely acquiantance of mine (we played pub trivia together at least twice and against each other a few times). I bought it shortly after it came out, and I read it over the course of the past couple of days. It's a fantastic book for all trivia geeks; it would also be an interesting read, I think, for anyone who has a sense of what a college mentor of mine used to call "academic community"--the idea that there are other people out there who are interested in big ideas, in little facts, and especially in the connection between those two things. Bob never had academic community, per se, but as much as anything the book is about how he found (through a game show, of all things) that he was interested in those things, that other people were as well, and that that commonality was more important than differences in education, age, geography, profession, etc. If any of that sounds remotely worthwhile to you, then I suggest picking up Prisoner of Trebekistan. Anyway, it's a quick read.

I certainly recommend it for a more general audience than the last book I read, Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday. It's a history of the 1920s, which might sound good to the general audience, until I add that it was written in 1931. I enjoyed it, but definitely more of a history geek thing.