Let’s Talk About Sex, Wes Anderson

wa01_budapest
wa02_moonrise

Writer/director Pedro Almodovar once referred to film as a conversation between a director and his audience. Let’s run with this metaphor and say that it’s finally time for Wes Anderson to start talking to us about sex. How is it that eight features into his career, the usually R-rated indie filmmaker has never once shown filmgoers a proper sex scene? Consider Anderson’s contemporaries: David O. Russell made a whole film about a character who wants to bed his mother (Spanking the Monkey) and showed us Anderson-regular Jason Schwartzman humping Isabelle Huppert on a pile of mud in I Heart Huckabees. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us the most aggressively painful handjob in cinematic history via The Master and—oh, yeah—the two-and-a-half-hour porn-world epic Boogie Nights. Even a filmmaker like Spike Jonze, who seems just as shy as Wes Anderson when it comes to talking about copulation, has given us the horror of Nicolas Cage’s sweaty, balding masturbation in Adaptation and sex with one’s iPhone in Her.

Anderson apologists will no doubt reference the under-the-covers, cut-away lovemaking in Bottle Rocket; jokes about handjobs in Rushmore; potential sibling congress in The Royal Tenenbaums; a topless script girl in The Life Aquatic; Jason Schwartzman licking his hand in The Darjeeling Limited; and the truly creepy early-teenage girl in Moonrise Kingdom, dancing in her bra and referencing her co-star’s erection (re-watching that scene in our post-Dylan Farrow’s letter world can give one the creeps; not by suggesting anything untoward about Anderson himself, but rather by bringing up questions about what constitutes entertainment by way of passing the Cannes Film Festival authenticity sniff test in today’s culture). By most any standard, none of Anderson’s “sex scenes” so far have gone far enough (except, oddly, Moonrise Kingdom, which does go too far). This visual prudishness isn’t in itself such an issue. Many great filmmakers find ways to avoid sex; though it’s difficult to name one off-hand (or even after hours of consideration). The nagging feeling though is that Anderson has been going out of his way to avoid the topic.

Getting to First Base

Martin Scorsese (one of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking heroes) was an early fan of his style and noted in a 2000 Esquire essay, “[Anderson] knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness.” Based off of Anderson’s filmography up to that point (1996’s Bottle Rocket and 1998’s Rushmore), Scorsese’s note feels dead-on. And when Anderson is at his best, he’s still able to convey this joy of interaction as well as any filmmaker working today. His screenplays must be a delight for actors to read (even if many of those men and women who end up cast are increasingly used as mere props in Anderson’s decoupage of light and sound). Appreciating the filmmaker’s love of language and ability to mix highbrow references with jolts of profanity (the main reason for his films’ frequent R ratings) is a key to enjoying any Anderson movie.

Some of his comedic bits are so good, in fact, (such as a sequence in Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which a progression of concierges tell their underlings to “take over” increasingly ridiculous tasks) that one wonders if an alternative universe Anderson could have benefited from sharpening this instinct even further with a few years in a good writers’ room, constructing jokes and scenes for someone else, as Charlie Kaufman did as a staff writer on The Dana Carvey Show in the mid-’90s. Similarly, Saturday Night Live’s recent spoof of Anderson’s filmmaking style felt like more of a tribute than a lashing, though it did work in pointing to the absurd levels that Anderson currently reaches in order to continue expanding his world and find human jokes within its artifice.

This leads to a significant problem within Budapest. The reason why the humor in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore worked so well was that the jokes were based on recognizable humor behavior. At the significant risk of getting too pontifical, here’s how comedy works: you depict a world as it really and then exaggerate elements of that world for giggles. This “rule” explains why it’s so difficult for fantasy and science fiction programs to ever be funny. A joke on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Lord of the Rings will fall flat if you don’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Klingon/human interaction or a hobbit’s need for two breakfasts. And even if you do grasp such specifics, it’s hard to truly identify with the acknowledgement of such fictional stereotypes. How can something ring true if it is, in fact, entirely false?

Such is the issue with Anderson’s later filmography. Everything in The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, is so thoroughly outside of our understanding of reality that the laughs (and there are a bunch) often come from when a line of dialogue is delivered in a way that comically reminds us of a character’s humanity or in the goofy flourish of a visual detail in Anderson’s increasingly animated film universe.

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel involves a fictional hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka as told to an author (played by Jude Law and also— earlier/later—by Tom Wilkinson) and the story as its later written by that author and (assumingly) published and read by a young girl hanging out in a cemetery. It’s as exhausting as it sounds. Anderson has twisted not just the narrative structure of a typical film but also the documented and understood world of 1930s Europe into such a convoluted pretzel of kookiness that audience members can do little but attempt to pick up on errant references (“Oh, the ZZ is supposed to be like a swastika”) and enjoy the hijinks along the way.

wa03_darjeeling
wa04_hotel

But Back to the Sex

The increasingly goofy nature of the film worlds captured in recent Wes Anderson movies make it difficult to acknowledge sexuality or even violence in all but the most exaggerated of forms. Two interesting, mid-career glimpses of sincerity on both fronts can be found in Anderson’s surprisingly sexually interested short film Hotel Chevalier, a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, and in the blood-soaked water of a death scene found in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In Grand Budapest, there are a handful of arguably sexual, shocking or grotesque moments, all of which lack any sincerity, and all of which are played for laughs: fingers are cut off by a slamming door; an elderly woman is glimpsed performed fellatio on Ralph Fiennes’ concierge character, Gustave H.; a woman’s severed head is pulled out of a box; a shoot-out produces no blood and plenty of laughs.

But those are still bullets being fired. That’s a severed head. Those fingers are being sliced off in the same animated style as Anderson used to depict a cartoon fish in The Life Aquatic. To be so goofy and cavalier about such heightened moments of pain and shock certainly seems like an act of immaturity.

And what of Gustave H.’s tendency to sleep with the elderly female guests who stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel? This is all fairly glossed over in Anderson’s world (the guy likes having sex with older women, ha ha), but this decision on Gustave’s part and the act of “doing it” are so essential to everything else that happens in the film that to gloss over this detail is at once narratively careless and aesthetically coward.

In order to find the depiction of a healthy sexual relationship between consenting adults in one of Anderson’s films, you have to go all of the way back to Bottle Rocket. In Anderson’s first film, amateur thief Anthony (played by Luke Wilson) earnestly pursues motel maid Inez (by Lumi Cavazos). They form a relationship and in a key scene, they have sex. This isn’t played for laughs. It’s touching. And so much of the rest of Anthony’s decisions in the film (and he is Bottle Rocket’s protagonist, despite Dignan’s charismatic presence) involve his love for Inez. Such love shines through in that glimpse of a sex scene in the motel room, as Love’s “Alone Again Or” plays over the soundtrack:

Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun

Anderson’s love and appreciation for regular, everyday people, the feeling that he “could be in love with almost everyone” shines through in Bottle Rocket. And then even as early as Rushmore, Anderson feels the need to construct the most elaborate, intelligent and seemingly sophisticated of characters in the form of Max Fischer. And with each subsequent film, Anderson gets further away from the authenticity of Bottle Rocket’s Anthony and Dignan and closer to the quirky faux-perfection of Max Fischer or Steve Zissou or Gustave H.

If Anderson wants to continue to construct increasingly fanciful worlds, moving further and further from his Texas roots and deeper into the Coppola and European-influenced sophistication of his later films, that’s his prerogative and he’ll surely continue making funny, diverting movie along the way. But it would be great if Anderson were to take a moment and try to depict a true sex scene or an honest glimpse of unapologetically cruel and not-for-laughs violence. After all, such behavior represents not just the extremes to which humanity can be expressed, but also a way in which any narrative world can be linked to the harsh realities of the world as we know it.

Maybe sex, ultimately, isn’t Wes Anderson’s “thing.” In Rushmore, Max Fischer’s father response to his son’s comment that he should “probably be trying harder to score chicks” by telling Max, “You’re like one of those clipper ship captains. You’re married to the sea.”

“That’s true,” Max says. “But I’ve been out to sea for a long time.”

Perhaps for Anderson, it’s time for his own subtext to come home to roost.

wa05_bottle
wa06_rushmore

Nate Silver’s War on Myth

fox

Illustration courtesy of Jkr Kromarek

This message is directed to all the pundits, “gut instinct guys,” and backyard bloviators who have built their reputation on the ability to spout pithy, glib, and assertive opinions that sound like facts.

I hope you enjoyed your day. With the launch of the new FiveThirtyEight on Monday, Nate Silver is going to ruin the fun.

Many years ago, I went to hear the President of Wayne County Community College give an after-lunch address in the town where I was working. He looked out at his audience, and asked what we believed to be a rhetorical question: “Why don’t people use facts when they make decisions?” He paused for another moment and then proceeded to answer his own question. “Because,” he said, “facts take all the fun out of decision making.”

Which brings us to Nate Silver, who was last seen introducing facts and removing the fun from the 2012 presidential election. As you will recall, the previous iteration of FiveThirtyEight was Silver’s blog on The New York Times website in which he analyzed polling data. He is not a pollster, though. Silver aggregates data produced by others and then adjusts it based on the pollster’s historic accuracy, arriving at a view of a race that is often supported by thousands of interviews.

This was not his first foray into the employment of math in predicting the future. He started on baseball (I won two fantasy leagues using his PECOTA projection system) and actually made a living playing video poker.

His signature approach is to state his predictions in terms of probabilities. He uses his database to aggregate polling data and translate it into the statement that “Candidate X has a 70% chance of winning.”

The maddening part is that we have been told for years that because a 5-percentage point lead is within the margin for error, the race is therefore “too close to call.” Silver tells us that historically speaking, a candidate with a 5-point lead a week before the election will win that race 90% of the time.

And by doing that, he took all the fun out of observing elections, just as Billy Beane took all the fun out of scouting in Moneyball. Pundits walk around trying to smell momentum; Beane’s scouts would say a player had a “good jaw.”

When Silver applied this technique to the presidential election, he paid the price for being a killjoy, becoming the subject of national debate and way more famous than I suspect he ever expected.

I don’t care that he was reviled by partisans — that’s just the game. I’m more interested in another class of people who reviled Silver: political journalists and pundits.

When I was in college, our instructors taught us that journalism was a fact-based enterprise, and so you would think the “boys on the bus” would have welcomed Silver’s analysis. This was not the case. To explain why, we need to understand the life of a political journalist on the bus. It isn’t fun. Life on the bus means early mornings, crappy food, spotty cell service, and a full dose of bus fumes. And tedium. Hours and hours of tedium.

Which is why when the bus stops in a small town, he might be tempted to sneak off to the coffee shop and seek some human contact, asking a man wearing a green John Deere cap if he minds if he sits down.

He joins the man and they talk. The farmer says he he’s heard a couple of people say that the challenger might have a shot this time. There is some concern about a price support issue and he thinks the incumbent is vulnerable and that the estate tax is a big issue out where land is a man’s wealth. The pundit excuses himself when he hears the bus cough to life.

As he rides to the next town, with nothing but time on his hands and a deadline in his future, he stares out across the fields, fragmented corn stalks poking out of frosty ground. He strokes his chin. Thoughtful.

“Yes,” he thinks, finally, nodding his head. “Something is happening here. I can feel it.” He then writes his column about the challenger exploiting voter unrest in this rural town and that a comeback — a historic comeback — could be brewing under John Deere caps.

He does this, only to find that Nate Silver is telling the world that the challenger has a 20% chance of winning on Tuesday.

The pundits did not take Silver’s assault quietly. As their mothers taught them, they “used their words.” David Brooks, bigfoot columnist from The New York Times, said:

Stuff happens. Obama turns in a bad debate performance. Romney makes offensive comments at a fundraiser. These unquantifiable events change the trajectories of tight campaigns. You can’t tell what’s about to happen. You certainly can’t tell how 100 million people are going to process what’s about to happen. You can’t calculate odds that capture unknown reactions to unknown events.

What he says is right. Nate Silver “can’t tell what’s about to happen.”

Here’s the secret that David Brooks and his buddies never wanted you to know: They can’t either. They can speculate, ruminate, ingratiate or even instigate, but they have no idea what’s going to happen.

There’s another statement in the Brooks quote that is even more interesting. He says “you certainly can’t tell how 100 million people are going to process what’s about to happen.” If that were the issue, he’d be right. Man, would politics be different if every time CNN blasted a breaking news alert or some breathless evening news announcer used the phrase “game changing,” 100 million people processed it — I mean, really processed the development.

Under those circumstances, we’d see a really turbulent political environment.

That’s not the world we live in, though. One hundred million people are immune to the drama. When most political events happen, they don’t “process” them at all, not because they are stupid and uninformed, but because they have other things to pay attention to. They know how they feel, they usually know who they are voting for, and even if something meaningful did happen, it generally isn’t enough to get them to vote for the other guy.

Our bankrupt country spent billions on this presidential election, and yet from wire to wire, the actual “game” almost never changed. Even following Obama’s first debate performance, the “dramatic” move to Romney only accounted for about 5% of the voters, which equals about six million people.

This is all about David Brooks and not about Nate Silver. Brooks liked it the way it was before. In Scooby Doo parlance, Nate Silver is a “meddling kid.”

Silver knows it. After the election, he wrote:

News organizations tend to have incentives to “root for the story”. Part of what we were saying for much of the campaign — both at different stages of the general election and perhaps even more emphatically in the end-stage of the primary when Romney pretty much had things wrapped up — is that the outcome had become fairly certain. So that creates a bit of a culture clash.

While it is accurate to say that the media has “incentives to ‘root for the story,’” it is also a touch facile. A closer examination of the incentives finds a color made from mixing three hues.

First, the media roots for the story out of cynicism. Advertisers demand viewers/readers and those people are going to want to hear a story and without them there’s no reason to be on the bus, and while that might not be the world’s greatest existence, a reporter might be thinking that she still has to make a living and it would be in everyone’s interest to keep the wheels turning.

They also root for the story out a desire to give meaning to what they do. If you’re going to suffer the discomfort and indignity of a bus ride across rural Wisconsin, it ought to be in the service of something important — in this case, making and reporting meaningful first hand observations of an unfolding true-life drama.

Finally, they root for the story because of the power it gives them. Until recently, the media was the definer. In politics, reporters were constantly being courted. After debates, giant rooms were reserved so campaigns could spin the results to hundreds of reporters at once. Let’s be honest: it is a drug anyone could get hooked on.

In the intervening months, there’s no doubt that Silver emerged the winner and took all of the fun out of political reporting. He left The New York Times to move to Disney. His new site settles the issue: Nate Silver is not going anywhere.

At the new site, they’re going to do more than politics, so the pundits will have company — laugh now, weather personalities, “health reporters,” and economic “analysts.” The spotlight could be on you next.

But take heart, too. Maybe there’s a nourishing world of understanding lying beyond the world of myth.

Maybe when the man in the John Deere cap tells the political pundit about the importance of agricultural price supports, the reporter could remind the farmer that those payments aren’t free — they come from the pockets of real people who worked hard to earn their money, too.

Or maybe the weather personality will spend less time hyping the next storm and more time educating the public about how our climate and humans interact.

Or maybe the health reporter will pull back the reins on the latest “connection” between a random substance and cancer, and spend time helping people understand the boring and real risks they accept blindly every day.

You get the idea.

Once we abandon the game of myth making, we can focus our media noise machine on the task of healing from the inside out. The first step in this pursuit is nothing more complicated than to spend less time inflaming people’s existing notions and more time helping people understand the world around them.

If We Didn’t Laugh, We’d Cry, or Vice Versa

laugh_cry

Photo courtesy of Eleanor Wood

Something that I find incredibly poignant is when you can’t tell whether a person is crying or laughing. The two reactions exist on complete opposite ends of the emotional spectrum and yet, to an outside observer, they are often barely distinguishable.

I think that says a lot about humanity right there.

An example: once, I accidentally ran over the neighbor kid’s toy truck while backing out of my driveway and it was impossible to tell whether he was crying about the truck, or laughing because of the futility of it all. I would have asked him but I was running late.

Another occasion that comes to mind is my father’s funeral. Was everyone there crying over his untimely demise? Or were they laughing remembering how funny he looked while he was having that heart attack? In truth, it was probably an even split. We were all pretty conflicted, I’m sure, but that’s sort of what life is all about.

Sometimes, I admit, the confusion is my own doing. Whenever I choose to end a relationship, for instance, I pepper the break-up speech with lots of jokes in order to soften the blow. Of course, the combination of devastating news and hilarious one-liners makes it impossible to tell how the person I’m dumping is responding. But in most of those cases I’m pretty sure they’re laughing, stoically, tears of joy sliding down their cheeks as their lower lips quiver in silent fits of mirth.

Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. After all, there could very well be some evolutionary benefit to being able to conceal — or obscure — one’s most extreme emotional reactions. I think about that whenever I approach a random child and tell him that Santa Claus isn’t real.

Here are some other instances when I typically have trouble telling whether people are laughing or crying:

  • Whenever I fire someone from my dad’s company
  • At the ends of “sad” movies (sort of unclear about which movies these are)
  • The time I had to shoot my nephew’s dog because it either had rabies or was really happy to see us
  • Whenever I bring up the dog around my nephew (I do this a lot)
  • When I douse people with pepper spray, as a prank
  • Whenever someone says something like, “I’m obviously crying, you goddamn sociopath.” (Some kind of meta-joke?)

I think that it can go both ways, too. When I beat my drunk driving charge, the people in the courtroom may have wondered whether I was laughing out of relief or crying out of guilt for what happened to the neighbor kid (who really should have just stayed in his own driveway). What none of them could have known was that it was neither — I was laughing because I had suddenly remembered my dad’s heart attack face.

To me, the sound of laughter and/or crying is the most beautiful thing in the world and I’m glad that people spend so much time doing one or the other, especially when I’m around.

Recommendations, 3/14

Jonathan

Sometimes when I listen to Stax-produced soul I wonder where I have been all my life. I should have been listening to Otis Redding as soon as I graduated from my Free To Be and Sesame Street Disco phase. Why did it take me this long? Like all great works of art, the Otis Redding King of Soul box set (available to stream on Spotify) has changed me in ways I don’t yet understand. For too long I have been into the lesser Stax saints like Johnnie Taylor and William Bell. I guess I figured that Otis Redding was just “Sittin’ on the Dock of Bay” and nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. King of Soul gives you the whole raw, rough, brilliant, badass, Otis Redding package.

If fifty-year-old soul seems to square to you, Joan as Police Woman released a new album just this week. On that album, The Classic, the horns, the backing vocals, the groove make it clear that the classic sound lead singer Joan Wasser is going for is the sound that Redding perfected. A song like “Holy City” is the best kind of soul update. It’s not retro; it’s just good.

Gabriella

I loved — no, was borderline obsessed with — The West Wing. Years later, I binge-watched my way through the delightfully nefarious House of Cards. So it’s no surprise that I immediately fell for Borgen, the internationally acclaimed Danish political drama that first aired in 2010. Give me montages of politicos briskly walking while wearing power suits or give me death.

Borgen follows Birgitte Nyborg, the country’s first female Prime Minister, as she maneuvers through the Danish political system — a system that has, as far as I can tell, somewhere between five and 500 different parties. Other standouts are her media advisor or “spin doctor,” Kasper Juul, and his ex, intrepid young journalist, Katrine Fonsmark. Outside of parliament and the public eye, Birgitte struggles with her work-life balance, much to the frustration of her husband Phillip — how do you say “can she have it all?” in Danish?

The show’s been referred to as “the Danish West Wing,” and, admittedly, that’s what initially piqued my interest. And while Birgitte does have the upstanding morals and firm grace of Josiah Bartlet, there’s an acerbic undercurrent to the story — think House of Cards, sans the borderline-cartoonish evil. The result is a show that’s ultimately more complex than either of its American counterparts.

Nick

It would be almost comically cliche for me to recommend the new album by Stephen Malkmus, Wig Out at Jagbags, but even my biased ears know it’s only for Pavement diehards. Who even listens to albums anymore anyway? So, let’s just talk about one good cut instead. For my money, “Houston Hades” is the most fun, and more importantly, the most Malkmusy track on the record. It opens with 30 seconds of aimless guitar noodling, then breaks into a peppy pop rock song full of wandering, disjointed lyrics that turn out to be kind of mean and cynical when you think about them. (That’s five diagonally on your Malkmus bingo card if you count the free space.) “If Houston’s Hades/for Houston ladies/with all those truck huggers, gun luggers/now you gotta have their babies – no,” Malkmus sings, condemning the reproductive fitness of a vast metropolitan area in a single singsongy swoop. “Houston Hades” also shows off what may be the famously aloof frontman’s greatest vocal range to date. He goes so low when he sings “for all you slim shadies” that it almost seems like he’s trying for a second.

I especially love this song because it marks another entry in the “Harness Your Hopes” family tree. Originally a B-side from Brighten the Corners, “Harness Your Hopes” has become a favorite among Pavement catalog trawlers for its prodigious volume of irreverent wordplay. (I can only assume Malkmus was on some hallucinogen when he cut it from the record; it’s one of his best.) It was a unique entry in the Malkmus canon until 2011′s Mirror Traffic gave us the super dense “Forever 28.” “Houston Hades” doesn’t quite have the same profusion of lyrics as the other two, but it’s extra irreverent, so I’m counting it in their ranks.

My attachment to these songs, I think, stems from my perennial struggle to justify my obsession with Stephen Malkmus. On first listen, a lot of his music sounds like straightforward rock, perhaps with some lingering abnormality you can’t put your finger on. It hardly possesses the singular style that usually drives lifelong fandom (as opposed to, say, The Grateful Dead, KISS, or Limp Bizkit). But “Harness Your Hopes” and its ilk encapsulate the appeal of Malkmus’s music and sound completely distinctive. He’s the only person who could have made those songs. And it delights me that he continues to do so.

Kevin

I’m currently in New Orleans, taking a break from New York’s bleak weather and bleak people. Okay, look at these ribs:

I ate the hell out of those ribs — maybe some of the best I’ve ever had. They were at a place in the Bywater called The Joint. It looks like this:

I recommend dragging yourself, wherever you are, down to New Orleans and eating at The Joint. You will feel the sort of cosmic bliss that only good barbecue can provide to your soul. I’ve been here two days and I’ve already eaten there twice. And maybe I’ll keep eating here, transcending my physical being to a higher plane, night after night, via ribs and pulled pork.

At least until my heart stops.

Hallie

Andy Douglas Day‘s new graphic novel, Miss Hennipin, has the elements I love about all his comics — his crudely beautiful drawing style, the elaborate stories, and the feeling, when you finally understand what’s going on, that you’re in on an bizarrely wonderful inside joke.

But at 160 pages, it’s his most elaborate story yet, and his most coherent. As in, you’ll probably get at least half of the jokes on the first read, and incrementally more after that. (The re-reading is definitely worth it.)

Miss Hennipin tells the story of its namesake, or M.H., as so many of her belongings are monogrammed. She lives in a remote mansion with her faithful servant, Mokumbo. Told in a series of disconnected- but- connected vignettes, the book opens with the mysterious arrival of a lost youth on Hennipin’s property. While the stories surround this event, they are mostly about her strange everyday life and her even stranger relationship with Mokumbo. As he helps her with even the most trivial tasks, such as purchasing a fern (“I would like something quiet… Quiet but vigilant”) we gather more and more details on their complex and hilarious relationship (“If you’re trying to pick a fern that you can hide behind at home, then think again”).

There are a handful of great side characters that interrupt the narration, but the surrounding world itself might be my favorite voice other than Hennipin’s. The writing on objects, signs, and decor are funny for the way they comment on the story, but even viewed totally independently of the narrative, they always make me laugh, and they are is part of what makes re-reading the book so enjoyable and surprising.

I love Miss Hennipin because she carries on the tradition of the best old ladies. She reminds me of my grandmother in her meticulous approach to the most mundane chores. Of Emily from Gilmore Girls in her total sense of entitlement. Of Dickens’ Miss Havisham in how bat-shit crazy she is.

This is Andy’s second book for Sonatina and he’s already working on his third. He’s only getting better, so get on board while the jokes are still “inside.”

You can order Miss Hennipin from Sonatina, and if you’re in the bay area, attend the book release at Mission Comics on April 4.

My Family Eats Paleo: An Activity Book for Kids

Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by David Mansfield

Hi, kids! Welcome to the healthy and yummy world of the Paleo Diet!

I bet you’re wondering: what exactly does “Paleo” mean? You’ve probably heard Mommy and Daddy talking about it a lot recently. You may have even noticed some changes in your kitchen, at your dining table, or even inside your lunchbox. Where has all the bread gone? What’s happened to your cookies? And what are “chia seeds”?


The Paleo Diet is really simple — it’s what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago, way back before there were supermarkets and delicious, terrible carbohydrates. Early humans ate only what they could kill or gather. Their food was LEAN and GREEN — lots of meat and yum-yummy veggies, and NO bread!

Even though their average life expectancy was under 30, they sure were fit and skinny. Your Mommy and Daddy are very smart, and have realized that lots of experts, CrossFit trainers, and people on the Internet are right: eating like early humans is the best possible way to be healthy. And Mommy and Daddy want YOU to be healthy too!

These activities are a fun way to learn all about your new and exciting way of eating. Have a blast! And remember: no more Doritos, ever.

Find That Food: Help the caveman find his dinner in this forest drawing! Circle:

  1. The animal he can spear for meat (hint: it looks like a hairy elephant!).

  2. The plants he can collect for healthy nutrients.
  3. The berries he can pick for a sweet natural treat.
  4. The almonds he can grind using his Vitamix to replace white flour in baked goods.

Draw an X through the pile of bagels. EW, carbs! Color in the forest when you’re done.

Little Paleo Chef: Make Paleo “Oreos” to take to school! Use banana slices for the cookies and almond butter for the cream filling. Remember: don’t cry when your friend eats his Chips Ahoy in front of you at lunch — he’ll probably end up morbidly obese!


Word Scramble: An important Paleo lesson is hidden in this word scramble — can you find it?


N J Z O W R
O P C A K E
D S U C K S
H J P L M K


Finish the Story: Help Mommy finish her latest Facebook status update by filling in the blanks with the words below.

“Wow, what a week! Whole family is now eating _____ and training ______ ! Excited for these _____ to get even looser! But, most importantly, we’re all feeling ______ – we don’t even miss _______! Check out our latest dinner on our _____ :)”

mean | pants | clean | carbs | Instagram | healthier    

Connect the Dots: It’s you in your CrossFit Kids class! Don’t forget to color in your Vibrams with your favorite crayon.

Daddy And Me: Daddy bought a sandwich today – where can he hide it? Help him look for hidden spots in the garage to eat in secret.

Little Paleo Chef 2: Everyone loves bacon! Try wrapping protein-licious bacon around your favorite Paleo snacks, like kale, grass-fed beef, and more bacon.

Math Superstar: Using everyone’s body weight and average amount of physical activity per day, help your whole family calculate their required daily protein intake and carbohydrate levels to reach a state of ketosis. Remember to measure in grams!


Mommy And Me: Test Mommy’s real hunter-gatherer skills by going on a hunting trip. How much protein can you help her kill in two hours? Give yourself a pat on the back if you skin your prey correctly!

Crafts: Use orange, red, and brown construction paper to make your very own big four-cheese pizza! Give it to Daddy so he can sadly rip it apart in front of Mommy as punishment for the sandwich thing.

Little Paleo Chef 3: Make your old favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs, then throw the spaghetti part in the trash!


Talk About It: Make sure all of your classmates know about your healthy new lifestyle. Punch anyone who doesn’t agree. You’re an expert now!

Me, My Quantified Self, and I

“The quantified self” is a technocratic movement that encourages self-tracking data. Broadly, the quantified self could mean acquiring data on everything — one’s environment, health, and activities. Usually, it means people tracking their daily step-count on a Fitbit.

Reporter is a new app that takes the notion of the quantified self, crosses it with journaling, and dresses it in bold colors and nice typography. It pings you at random points throughout the day to ask you questions about what you’re doing, who you’re with, and where you are. Default questions include “Are you working right now?” and “How did you sleep?” The goal of Reporter is to measure how you spend your day and to identify long-term patterns in your behavior. In an interview with The Verge, Drew Breunig, a developer behind Reporter, believes the data will be instructive, since it highlights aspects of your life you might not regularly contemplate: “I want you to be scared by your routine, or by decisions you haven’t thought about because you don’t want to face them.”

Having used the app for a couple weeks, nothing about my routine really scared me. Outside of the app’s pleasant visual aesthetic, there was little else of interest. Brendan O’Connor listed his gripes at The Daily Dot (most of which I agree with), namely that the sorts of data Reporter collects is tedious. He writes, “The aspects of our lives that make us who we are — the people we love and the people who love us, our passions and obsessions, our flaws and our work and our deepest, darkest secrets — clearly surpass the imagination of apps like Reporter. What dull lives we would lead if these (‘How many cups of coffee did you have today?’) were the most important questions we could ask ourselves.”

Though the defaults certainly don’t encourage creativity, one could argue that Reporter is only as unimaginative as its user, since it allows you to customize the questions. I added two queries of my own: “Are you reading or writing?” and “Did you exercise today?”

On one hand, I’m identifying what parts of my life are important to me. I like the idea that I’m someone who writes and works out regularly enough to track it. On the other hand, by deciding to quantify these things about myself specifically, I am creating an identity for my most idealized self. I collect this data because it’s how I want to construct the narrative of my life.

Most of the buzz around Reporter comes from the app’s proprietor, Nicholas Felton, a former designer at Facebook who conceived the Timeline and the Open Graph. Felton has also been an early proponent of the quantified self, releasing annual reports on his life since 2005 (though it seems the attention they receive has more to do with how nicely they are designed rather than what data is represented).

Before being acquired by Facebook, Felton created a service called Daytum, self-described as “an elegant and intuitive tool for counting and communicating personal statistics.” Felton’s Daytum profile is used as an example of a “personal dashboard.” It displays the number of miles he ran, cities he’d vacationed to, and celebrities he’d sighted. What we’re supposed to take from his profile is that Nicholas Felton is a runner, a jetsetter, a person who regularly spots Terry Richardson. But this is the information he chooses to display about himself; the data he collects projects the type of person he wants us to see.

Recall David Hume’s bundle theory of the self from your college Intro to Philosophy class. Hume argued that despite the fact that our experiences, feelings, and memories appear connected, there’s no evidence that they are more than a bundle of perceptions. For that reason, the “self” doesn’t exist. What exactly is the quantified self, then, if anything? We can convince ourselves that all the data points we collect in an app like Reporter add up to something when in reality they don’t — though we might try to convince ourselves and others, with elegant fonts and colorful charts, that they do.

Illustrations courtesy of Bob May

Guest Recommendations: Suzy Hopkins

Watch The Bad Seed

Epic pigtails, a serial killer and an increasingly haggard and horrified housewife. Those aren’t memories of my parenting career, at least in terms of hairstyles and death count, but of the 1956 movie, The Bad Seed.

Probably it signals some grave psychological dysfunction, this intense interest in grave psychological dysfunction. Each of six siblings in my original family, in fact, suspected they might be a “bad seed,” a competition of sorts in which different winners emerged decade by decade.

It was reassuring, though, to fall far short of the mark compared to little Rhoda Penmark, she of an era’s rigidly plaited pigtails, a mistress of chilling looks and incessant toe-taps and memorable lines like “Gimme those SHOES back.”

As a child, I thrilled at the slow revelation of evil… “The whisper of suspicion grows… into the thunder of the terrifying truth.” I always supposed that if you knew that truth, you might not make it out alive, and of course in the greater sense that’s all too true.

Part of the movie’s charm was an express request not to reveal the shocking ending. Which of course I won’t — I take these movie promises seriously — except to say that she gets cosmically spanked.

mom_cat

Sleeping with a cat on your neck

Don’t try this with a baby in the house, but if you’re baby free consider wearing a cat at night.

Photos of my mother-in-law circa 1950s show her raking leaves with a dead animal curled around her throat, a fox or mink or some other unfortunate fluffy tailed soul.

Perhaps that pleasure she must have derived — clearly, it looks like the leaf raking takes a backseat to the fur displaying — is akin to this wearing of the cat.

Eight months ago, my daughter Hallie and friend Adia rescued two kittens from dire circumstances and bestowed them upon me as gifts. Gracie is shy and prone to hide; Molly is the gregarious one who has claimed my neck at night.

The cat derives a great deal of warmth, I suppose, and an abiding sense of power as she rapturously settles into full curl, paws wrapping around to knead the skin under my eyes.

I derive worry, wonderment, questions: Worry over those future visiting grandchildren — steel-capped cribs, I’m thinking. Wonder at the audacity it takes to claim shifting human turf for your own.

Questions about the actual mechanics of purring, an engine that starts at exactly the time restorative oblivion should be under way. If I weren’t so tired I’d look it up. Do cats decide to purr, or is it a bodily function devoid of meaning any deeper than “You’re mine.”?

The question being, as it always is with cats and perhaps even my mother-in-law: do we own the fur or does the fur own us?

Talk to old people

The most interesting people I know are old. Not old as in you’re 20- and 40-year-olds seem ancient. But really old, like deep-rooted trees battered by storms you can’t even imagine.

I didn’t always feel this way. I used to be scared of old people, from the time my stern grandmother lost it over my failure to properly hang a broom (“I have a bone to pick with you” was her alarming introduction to the reprimand.)

Fifty years later, to my surprise, I publish a senior magazine and interview the oldest of the old.

There’s 105-year-old Bill, who at 103 drove across country with a loaded pistol in the trunk. Car and driver returned safely, no shots fired. (In 1926 he joined the 7th Cavalry and was issued a horse — Number E-213. Eighty years later he bought an iPad.)

Lola, who at 89 was still mourning her eldest son’s suicide when she fell off a rural hillside and broke her neck. She downplays her constant pain, is quick to welcome visitors with tea and a companionable chat, and vows to keep helping her family members with their challenges “for as long as I’m able.”

And Rusty, 86, who recalls the day when as a stressed-out middle-aged businessman he swapped cigarettes for running shoes. He divides his time between two gyms these days and hangs out with his 73-year-old girlfriend.

Maybe it’s my childlike desire to hear a story that makes me love these folks. But I also appreciate how advancing age seems to lift the fog of vanity.

Ask to take a 40-, 50- or 60-year-old’s photo and their first concern is how they’ll look, with break-your-camera jokes quickly following. An 80-year-old is more likely to say, “Sure, what time?”

These old folks often have lousy hearing, failing eyesight and take a long time to answer the door. And while they may not lord it over you, they’re probably smarter (who can help it, with all that extra time) and can run circles around you in the life-dealt-me-a-storm department.

The thing is, they hung on and kept going, grateful to get another chance tomorrow. I like hearing the stories, but I love learning the lessons.

Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman

The Traveling Salesman

salesman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hello ma’am. May I come in for a second? My name is — whoops! I’ve spilled a handful of dirt on your carpet, and now I’m rubbing it deep into the fibers with my foot!

Luckily, I have with me a product that will forever change the way you tackle your most noisome domestic duty. Tell me, are you dissatisfied with your current kitchen cutlery? What’s that?

Oh, the dirt, yes. Just a little “trick of the trade” that one of my salesman buddies taught me. His name is J. Gregory Stanton. He’s what we in the trade call “a veteran of the trade.”

Allow me to demonstrate the durability of these knives. You could use these babies to cut a soup can in half — with the soup still in it! Ha, ha.

Yes, ma’am, I did throw dirt on your floor. It’s an old salesman’s trick, all part of the show. Trust me — you’re going to love that dirt pile by the time I’m done. Did you hear my soup joke?

Why, my knives are so strong that they’ll cut through an actual penny! I happen to have one here, and could you take your eyes off the dirt for just one second?

Please, have faith. Everything I’ve done is straight out of the Salesman’s Handbook. Have a look. See? Just like it says: I’m wearing a suit. I called you ma’am. I threw a lot of dirt on your carpet. I took that dirt from under the sod on your front lawn so you wouldn’t be spooked by strange dirt. I joked about soup, since you are a housewife and spend most of your time in the company of soups.

But if you mean to question sales techniques developed by Mr. J. Gregory Stanton himself, the top grossing vacuum cleaner salesman in the northeast, well, I’ve got news for you, lady: I just realized why I shouldn’t have put that dirt on your floor.

I’d be happy to run out to my car and see if I have a vacuum stowed away somewhere. No, I don’t know why I would, either. My whole back seat is full of knives and tin can fractions. Who’d keep a vacuum under a pile of knives? Not J. Gregory Stanton, that’s for sure. Say, do you have a vacuum?

Maybe I could use your phone, then? I could place a call to J. Gregory and ask him what I should do now. No? That’s alright. I suppose he’d just suggest I vacuum it up with my vacuum.

Let’s see… what else… Oh! Hello, young lady, is your mother home? I’m joking, of course. I know full well that you’re an adult. I just forgot to say that when I came in.

I think I have an idea. If my knives are sharp enough to cut a penny, surely it would be no trouble for me to cut a measly few feet of filthy carpet out of a lovely young lady’s living room floor? That would be no problem for my knives. Here, please observe. See? Would you like to take a stab at it?

Say, did you catch that? “Take a stab.” I wasn’t even trying to do that. I should have been a stand-up comedian instead of a traveling knife salesman.

Oh, sure, when I want to call my mentor J. Gregory Stanton, it’s all, “I’d rather you didn’t use my phone” this, and “Why are you like this” that. But as soon as you decide to call the police? “Well, hello operator! Get me my best friend, the police!”

Why, my knives are so strong that they’ll cut through an actual penny! I don’t know. I thought maybe I could slip back into the pitch and you wouldn’t notice.

Maybe I’m just not salesman material. Maybe I should call it quits. What will I say to my wife when I go home? “Hi, honey?” “How was your day?” I’m sure I will. I love talking to my wife.

Listen, if I don’t make a sale today, I’ll be forever disbarred from the Salesman’s Federation Of America. They’ll take away my fedora. They’ll take my cans. The dream will be dead. I’ll have to go back to my day job performing bone marrow transplants. The monotony of it! Day in and day out, sick kid after sick kid. It’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.

Ah, officer, hello! Tell me: are you dissatisfied with your current kitchen cutlery?

Major Label Debuts

st_vincent

When Phantogram released their sophomore record Voices a couple weeks ago, it seemed like nobody cared. The conversation that week was fixated on an early stream of the new self-titled St. Vincent album on NPR. I clicked through to a video for St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” and had to skip an ad for the new Phantogram record. Once I had finished, YouTube recommended the new Phantogram single again. Finally, I clicked. During the video for “Fall in Love”, the album’s first single, I realized then that St. Vincent and Phantogram were approaching similar moments—their VEVO moment, so to speak—only it was going better for St. Vincent.

For this record, her fourth, St. Vincent departed British indie label 4AD for Lomo Vista, a new label under Republic Records, owned by the Universal Music Group. Similarly, Phantogram’s newest album, Voices, is their first for Republic. This marks the first major-label album from both bands.

Their paths to the Big Four were markedly different though. St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark. It’s hard to find a review of any of her albums that doesn’t mention how she started as a background singer for Sufjan Stevens and was briefly a member of the Polyphonic Spree. But they’re important details. The story here is that Annie Clark has earned it. She put in her time.

Over four records, St. Vincent has been consistent but each successive album builds on the work that preceded it. It’s why reviewers will run profiles and reviews of her work under facile headlines like “Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.”

Clark’s work has always been defined by a disconnect between the sonic and substance. The sweetness of Marry Me‘s melodies were always sharpened by Clark’s lyrics, often darker and more twisted than her angelic euphony might express. Actor heightened this strain between aural elegance and lyrical grit. Look at “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood,” deceptively one of St. Vincent’s most serene songs until it bares its teeth during the refrain: “All of my old friends aren’t so friendly/ All of my old haunts are now all haunting me.”

Actor also introduced some jagged electronics. On “Marrow,” Clark’s voice is as fragrant as ever, but the presence of glitches and punchy guitar chords give Clark’s work a new texture and nerve. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent’s last album, indulged a new penchant for twitchy guitar licks. The album’s first single, “Cruel,” opens with Clark’s soft alto, floating on an orchestral swell, before the chorus breaks with a fuzzy guitar riff. The interplay between these two elements are like sweet and savory. Clark’s latest, merely titled St. Vincent, continues this progression. Its edges seem rougher; its constructions are edgier. The brass of “Digital Witness” march forward with a sense of warped irony, while the noisy crunch of distorted guitars turn “Birth in Reverse” into a muddy funk jam.

There is always the worry with major label transitions that artists will be forced to make their music more accessible. If anything has changed with St. Vincent, it’s that Clark is more assured than ever. It’s easy to be dismissive when a musician’s fourth album is self-titled (or “underwhelmingly-titled” as one reviewer said), but it’s perhaps the most fitting name: this is the record St. Vincent has been working toward for seven years. As much as I hate to say it, Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.

phantogram

I’d never thought of Phantogram and St. Vincent together until I started listening to both of their new albums heavily over the past couple weeks. Like St. Vincent, Phantogram’s sound relies heavily on a tension between the digital noise — synthesized drum beats and hazy overtones — and warm voices. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter split vocal duties, but Barthel handles the majority of the tracks. Her voice is cool and ghostly, like a siren luring you into a dark alley.

In interviews, the duo has dubbed their sound as “street beat” and “psyche pop.” The beats show influences from R&B and hip-hop; the production is a mix of moody trip-hop ambiance and indie rock muscle. The band’s debut, Eyelid Movies, is eclectic — Paul Thompson at Pitchfork even compared the album to Beck’s Odelay for its genre-jumping. It’s inconsistent at times, but sounds like a band discovering their sea legs, often illustrating their range. The diversity of Eyelid Movies is its strength; it promised even better, weirder things to come.

Since the album dropped in 2010, the band has quietly been expanding its audience. “When I’m Small” was featured in ads for Canon and Gilette, the band collaborated with the Flaming Lips and Big Boi, and an original Phantogram track made its way onto the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. All these placements seem like the work of a major label, slowly working doses of Phantogram into the collective pop culture bloodstream.

Voices smooths out the edges, but robs Phantogram of its capriciousness. “Fall in Love” distills the concept of “street beat” into an anthemic, radio-friendly single. It’s a terrific song, but unfortunately the same refinement of Phantogram’s hybrid R&B/rock doesn’t fare as well throughout the album. With the exception of “Bill Murray,” the album’s excellent centerpiece, Barthel’s performance throughout hits the same notes over and over. In particular, Carter-sung tracks like “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You” are safe, dull plays (even the song titles are bland). Though I like the idea of Carter’s tracks being the more sentimental ones (not unlike the dynamic of CHVRHCES’s Lauren Mayberry and Iain Cook), his vocal leads feel underdeveloped and overwrought. It’s a shame. Carter actually sang on my favorite track off Eyelid Movies, “Bloody Palms,” a track built around an aggressive riff that would have no place on Voices.

Was it simply too soon for Phantogram to make run at the mainstream listener? Between Eyelid and Voices, Phantogram released two EPs, both of which are hit-or-miss track by track. But they’re both more playful and experimental. “Don’t Move,” off of the Nightlife EP, is a strong contender for Phantogram’s best song to date. The song is actually brighter and more dynamic than anything else the band has produced. It certainly sounded like a step forward. What if Phantogram had spent more time discovering their sound, like Clark did over three albums, before making the jump to a major label?

From album to album, St. Vincent’s development has been iterative. Clark has taken what she has established and expanded carefully, meticulously. That’s not necessarily the right path for Phantogram. But whereas the appeal of Eyelid Movies was its unpredictability, the tragedy of Voices is that it sounds like squelched potential.

Recommendations, 2/28

Gabriella

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) immediately enchanted me: one of the first scenes, a rooftop dance party in the heart of Rome, pulsates with incredible, infectious energy. When the camera pans over various inebriated partygoers reveling in the moment, it’s clear that while this crowd is glamorous, much of it is aging and seedy (take, for example, the squat, balding man who plants himself in front of an attractive, leggy young thing and repeatedly hisses up at her in time to the beat: “I’ll screw you, I’ll screw you”). At the center of this hedonism is Jep Gamberdella — it’s his 65th birthday party, and it’s hard to imagine a bachelor his age who’s having a better time.

Still, despite all the women, Negronis, and perfectly tailored sportcoats he’s able to enjoy, Jep’s struggling with — what else — ennui. A one-time novelist, now half-invested journalist and de facto socialite, he receives the unexpected news that his first lover died, leading him to reexamine his lifestyle and the scene that he’s been a fixture of for decades.

The Great Beauty is a long, sweeping film, but Jep guides the viewer through his Rome in a series of vignette-like interactions that make the grandeur feel manageable and intimate. The most striking parts are the scenes that are so visually lush and dreamlike that they verge on magical realism, but the seemingly mundane ones — say, stopping at a café to buy cigarettes — are particularly moving and, indeed, beautiful.

Jonathan

I labor in the Humanities – that’s the building in your university that hasn’t been repaired or remodeled since the early 1970s – and modern Humanities-types have to be flexible. You never quite know what class is going to run so you try to develop every possible class you could conceivably teach. That’s why I am teaching leading an exploration of Japanese poetry this semester. This is also why I carry around a heavy briefcase full of Japanese poems, from ancient to modern. Of the various tomes I have sampled, The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss is my constant companion. The book provides a history and context not just for haiku, but for other forms of Japanese poetry. It takes the reader on the intellectual and historical journey from the longer choka to the tanka through the renga and finally arriving at the haiku. The translations of the poems provide Romanized Japanese along-side beautiful English renditions. Reading it, I feel a bit like Basho’s frog jumping into the sound of the old, clear pool of Japanese poetry – plop! It is a pool that has been waiting, patiently, for me to be wise enough to jump in.

Nick


For anyone who cares too much (read: at all) about the history of videogames, the Gameboy Advance is a fascinating system. In many ways, it’s a continuation of the Super Nintendo, a console where two dimensional graphics ruled and games mostly avoided the numbing clutches of realism. The GBA continued in this spirit, producing some of the best and most innovative titles ever (cough), and it also carried on the torch of pixel art. That little chunk of plastic with its tiny screen etched more images into my memory than the first two Playstations combined because it showcased veteran pixel crafters at the peak of their powers.

If you remember this art as fondly as I do, you need to follow the fabulous new blog Pixel Digest. Using some digital sorcery, the (anonymous?) author rips the sprites and backgrounds straight from old GBA games and, because it’s Tumblr, turns them into gifs. The results are spectacular. Note that every one of those Luigis is its own tiny image with a transparent background. They’re like perfect little jewels of internet. I bet these start showing up all over the web in a few months’ time.

The blog is still young, so it’s no sweat to read through the whole archives, but a few posts stand out to me. I love the eerie emptiness of this background from Mario and Luigi (make sure to click on the full-sized version). And the layout of these Metroid sprites is pure art. The author also gives technical explanations for how artists and developers squeezed so much visual richness out of such underpowered hardware, like how Dragon Quest III switches enemies from background images to sprites when they need to animate. Finally, this huge chart that details the graphical evolutions of the original Gameboy Pokemon is completely mesmerizing and yet more evidence that Psyduck is the best. The author says they’ll move onto new systems soon, and while I’ll be sad to live the GBA behind, I can’t wait to see where Pixel Digest goes next.

Kevin

Despite the fact I have no kids, I think I’ve reached Peak Dad. In December, as a birthday/Christmas gift to myself, I bought a guitar with the purpose of “jamming to old tunes,” as dads are wont to do. (It’s a Mexican-made Fender Strat, for those who know about guitars). I hadn’t played in any regular capacity for three or four years, but I figured this might be a good time to get back into it. I imagined myself occasionally noodling around while watching TV or waiting for laundry. It turns out when you come back to something after not doing it for a few years, you are terrible at it. I’d lost the dexterity in my fingers, my sense of rhythm, and the ability to hang onto a guitar pick for more than 30 seconds. And even though the point of buying the guitar wasn’t necessarily to be good at it, I was immediately frustrated with just how poorly I was playing.

So I bought the newest edition of Rocksmith, a videogame that’s more or less Guitar Hero with a real guitar. (You plug your guitar in with a special cable.) Back when music games were in their heyday, I was pretty good at Guitar Hero and Rock Band, mostly because I played them so often. Rocksmith is far less game-like. In fact, nowhere in its promotional material does it ever refer to itself as a videogame. It’s a method by which to learn guitar — the “fastest way” if its motto is to be believed.

At first, I didn’t like Rocksmith. As someone who knew the basics of guitar, it felt like the game was teaching me how to play itself rather than sharpening my picking and strumming. If you ever thought the five buttons on a Guitar Hero controller were a lot to handle, you’ll be terrified by the visual representation of notes in Rocksmith. It depicts the fretboard and each of the six strings on the X-axis of the screen while future notes come at you through the Z-axis. The information design is a bit of a mess — a chaotic string of moving numbers and lines — but once I got used to interpreting what the game was asking of me, it started becoming pretty enjoyable.

I’ve been playing regularly for a week now, mostly drilling the same songs over and over (the track selection is similar to those featured in Guitar Hero and Rock Band: a mix of classic and ’90s rock with a few newer indie songs for good measure). There are game-like motivators, like scoring and accuracy percentages. It all adds up to a sense of accomplishment and progress. And in the end, it’s far more satisfying to learn the entirety of “Reptilia” on a real guitar than in Rock Band.

I still take issue with a lot of the visual design. There are some strange inconsistencies, like the way the fretboard moves and which notes are numbered and which aren’t. But I realize Rocksmith has more to communicate than Guitar Hero. Actually, once I accepted that Rocksmith wasn’t a game, I had a lot more fun with it.

Special Skates

I, Bot

The best ideas are born out of spite. After I taunted my friend Brett O’Connor mercilessly with tweets during the Super Bowl (he’s from Denver), he responded the only way he knew how: by creating a Twitter bot.

This is how @knguyen_ebooks came to be. To build a Twitter bot takes a little bit of programming know-how, but it’s surprisingly unsophisticated. @knguyen_ebooks is built on a framework from an Australian developer who goes by “mispy.” Similar to its namesake @horse_ebooks (before its tweets were written by a human), it uses Markov chain, a mathematical system that is “memory less.” With text, it chains together words based partly on randomness and partly on what is likely to follow a given word. The result, when applied to a large corpus of text (in this case, my last two thousand tweets), is an output that often sounds like a bizarro version of me.

It’s startling how easily I can be imitated by a Twitter bot, hosted on a Raspberry Pi, a $25 computer the size of a credit card.

According to Brett, @knguyen_ebooks has a completely random chance of doing one of the following: tweet every 30 minutes, reply to someone it follows, reply to a mention, and continue to reply in a conversation. I’ve retweeted @knguyen_ebooks a handful of times, and it’s convincing enough to make people think, at least for a second, that the bot is me.

Bots that imitate humans are nothing new. @tofu_product, a bot created by Joe Toscano last October, “absorbs flavor,” meaning it replies to your tweets in a voice resembling your own. The bot attempts to be conversational by picking up key words in your reply, but the responses rarely make convincing sentences. Therein lies the humor of @tofu_product: it sounds like a broken, mangled mirror of yourself. Rob Dubbin’s bot @oliviataters tweets like a teenager by searching for phrases surrounding “is literally” and “was totally” and splicing them into new sentences, convincingly enough that on a handful of occasions it (she?) has gotten into Twitter spats with users who believe she is human.

But how important is a bot’s ability to resemble a human? Does it matter if we know it’s a bot or not? Whether a bot could pass the Turing test seems beside the point. Before the reveal that @horse_ebooks was not a bot, the charm of the account was the way it strung together poetic and cogent tweets from what appeared to be an algorithm; the same is true of @knguyen_ebooks. The fascination of these types of bots is not what they say, but how people interact with them. Since a bot’s output has no intention or motive, the meaning is what a human takes from it.

Having done web programming for so long, Brett wanted to try something completely different with his skills. So much of web development is focused on building tools or services that perform a specific useful function. With bots, they exist simply to delight and annoy. Their purpose (if we’re being liberal with the definition of “purpose”) is to evoke an emotional response. This sentiment is echoed in a Boston Globe profile of Darius Kazemi by Leon Neyfakh. He writes, “By imitating humans in ways both poignant and disorienting, Kazemi’s bots focus our attention on the power and the limits of automated technology, as well as reminding us of our own tendency to speak and act in ways that are essentially robotic.”

Kazemi is perhaps the godfather of Twitter bots (or at least the person who has probably built the most). His work includes bots that make puns out of trending Twitter topics, combines news headlines, and generates games of Fuck, Marry, Kill. Brett cites Kazemi as an inspiration for the four bots he has created, including one bot imitates himself as well.

“I’ve called my bot an ‘algorithmic mockery of my life’ before because every once in a while it will assemble some of my tweets into something that seems like a criticism or brings back a bad memory,” Brett says. “Of course this is all just me reacting to noise and garbage. I sometimes think it’s like ‘internet training,’ because humans make noise and garbage on the internet too.”

In following @knguyen_ebooks, I’ve recognized patterns in my own tweets. I talk obsessively about the same subjects (football, books, videogames) and too often use the same joke constructions. In a lot of ways, @knguyen_ebooks is funnier than I am because it heightens the tedious things I say by breaking the expectations of those who are familiar with my Twitter account.

When friends have asked me about my bot, I’m reminded of an interview with Larry David. Not surprisingly, David says the question he’s asked most often is how closely he resembles the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Every time, he says the character is not necessarily him, but the person he wishes he was. Larry David the character is funnier and weirder and more surprising than the real one.

A sentence is perhaps the simplest way to express an idea. It’s this understanding that makes Twitter’s limitations so powerful. All tweets are presented uniformly in a stream — chronologically, showing no preference (except to ads I suppose) — so the voice of an individual, a news organization, a corporation, and a robot are all on equal footing.

And yet, Twitter’s lack of context forces the user to create context. By design, Twitter gives us so little to go on that we must be conscious of our internet literacy. When an unfamiliar person follows us, we check to see if it’s a human or a spambot; when a famous person dies, we make sure it’s being reported by a credible news source. Twitter’s power comes from this tension between the lack of context and our ability to discover it. @knguyen_ebooks is only funny if you’re familiar with @knguyen. Curb Your Enthusiasm only makes sense if you know who Larry David is.

Still, the contextual relationships we have to Twitter don’t necessarily have to be true. Since my Twitter handle is my first initial followed by my last name — the 57th most common surname in the U.S. — I often get replies that are meant for a different K. Nguyen. A couple years ago, a college student from South Carolina began regularly tweeting insults at me, which I later realized were meant to be directed at a different Kevin Nguyen. When he figured it out, he decided to continue following me, occasionally retweeting me to his group of friends. I was then referred to as “Bootleg Kevin,” a sort of alternate-universe version of their Kevin Nguyen.

It was all in good fun. Apparently I resembled the complete opposite of their friend — a liberal who doesn’t regularly quote Family Guy and binge drink until he blacks out — and they would joke and retweet whenever I would say something that betrayed the reality of their Kevin Nguyen. Occasionally, I was tempted to tweet back at them, but I didn’t want to break the role they’d created for me. It didn’t matter that I was a real person; to these college kids, my account was an inside joke, a context they had invented, one that was funny and personal and delightful to them.

Illustrations courtesy of Bob May