30 November 2004

Adaptations

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:57 pm

Yet another “unfilmable” novel has fallen—this time it’s Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, from a random selection of the team that brought us Notting Hill. I don’t know what you need to do these days to write an unfilmable book that’s going to stick. If William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (bugpowder dust, mugwump jism, sentient assholes), JG Ballard’s Crash (fucking and mangling) and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (rats, nailguns, Whitney Houston) aren’t going to do it, I’m not sure what will.

Well, the whole idea of an unfilmable book gets thrown around a lot these days. People said it about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (various tangents to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (lots of lying around and sand) and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (beats me). And look what happened there.

I guess when people call a book “unfilmable” they often just mean that it’s too (i) violent; (ii) weird; or (iii) boring. Or, to sum up, they mean that what really counts about the book—what the whole point of the book is—just can’t be represented visually. And sometimes they’re right (the thing about The English Patient is the language; on celluloid it’s sumptuous as all hell but I’m definitely with Elaine on that one); sometimes they’re wrong (turns out American Psycho was about consumerism and ennui after all, and quite filmable); and sometimes the film people find a way to dodge the question (like Adaptation‘s adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, an extension of David Cronenberg’s trick with Naked Lunch).

Enduring Love was a great book, particularly the set-piece at the beginning, a bit of virtuosity that was widely published before the novel came out. I’m afraid it’s the kind of thing that can be breathtaking and consuming in a novel but kind of run-of-the-mill in cinema, but of course it’s too early to tell.

Anyway, The Guardian has a quiz about film adaptations which includes a question about a book that’s legally unfilmable due to its author’s intransigence, but we’ll see how long that lasts. See how you go! (I didn’t do very well.)

25 November 2004

A Short Festival on Bad Timing

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:45 am

I wrote this piece on spec for the Herald‘s “short festival” series—which used be on the back of Saturday’s Spectrum part, which was (the Spectrum part was) pleasingly tabloid in shape and easy to handle, as well as having a good concentration of literate and whimsical writing—about a week before the reverse-takeover of the old 48 Hours, in the course of which both the convenient tabloid format and the A Short Festival On: feature were scrapped.

It might even have been ironic if it’d actually been A Short Festival on: Bad Timing, especially because what a lot of people think of as irony—particularly what certain Canadian singers famously think—is in fact just bad timing. But it wasn’t, though it was close. It was, in fact:

A Short Festival On: Mistakes

“That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind,” Commander Neil Alden Armstrong intones portentously as his boot sinks into the lunar dust. At least, that’s what he was supposed to say. In fact he just says “one small step for man”—you can listen to the tape, it’s there forever. And since in the olden days “man” meant the same thing as “mankind” did (that is, “everyone”, and not just “blokes”), perhaps the most famous line in the cosmos winds up making no sense at all.

But it’s hard to blame Neil for his slip of the tongue (or tip of the slung, as the Reverend William Archibald Spooner would have it). He had, after all, just plonked down on the moon, the moon: he was understandably overwhelmed, and the slight flubbing of his line reflected the thrill and awe we all felt at the time, if we were alive. For this honourable, this endearing blunder, he is the patron saint of our festival.

Compare Neil’s benign muffing with US President George Walker Bush’s verbal train wrecks. It may be heart-warming to hear him wax about the struggle to “put food on your family” and affirm that “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully”. But when he starts up with the “tacular weapons” and “potential mential losses”, we suspect he’s trying to get at something to do with tactical nukes and missile launches, and there’s no room for those at our festival. Let his wings take dream somewhere else.

Ah, mistakes. Everyone makes them, so they say. In language, in life, and certainly in love, they’re usually embarrassing and sometimes mortifying. The biggest ones may never be admitted: there have been loads of wars, for example, and surely at least a couple of them have been somewhat off-beam, but you won’t catch anyone fessing up. Maybe they’re too big to be called mistakes; maybe they need another word.

Other mistakes are smaller in scope but still impress with their comprehensiveness. Take the plaque issued by the citizens of Lauderhill, Florida, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day in 2002. It was meant to thank actor James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the good Star Wars films, who had spoken at the celebrations; instead, it was made out to James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr King in 1968. It thanked him for “keeping the dream alive”.

In fact our whole festival could be given over to the Americans, whose country was, after all, discovered by accident. We can only wonder how long Cristoforo Colombo thought he was in the East Indies after he washed up in the New World; certainly long enough to call the people he met Indians, and for that name to stick for four centuries. Some would consider this kind of mistake serendipity, though the “Indians” might not be among them.

Greater consensus attaches to the serendipity of Alexander Fleming, who came back from holidays to find, like many of us, that his dirty plates were growing mould; only his plates had staphylococcus culture on them, and his mould was penicillin. It took an Australian, Sir Howard Walter Florey, to develop useful antibiotics from the mould, but none of it would have been possible without Sir Alexander’s happy accident.

Similar but less-exalted stories persist about the invention of Coca Cola, but in this case the legends themselves are mistaken: the carbonation of that syrupy solvent was by design, not serendipity. Conversely, prevailing wisdom suggests that the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was in fact a mistake.

Mistakes have plagued or enriched art and literature forever. A 1631 edition of the King James Bible landed its printers in hot water when its Seventh Commandment elided a critical word and instructed the credulous: “Thou shalt commit adultery”. Other versions describe Adam and Eve making “aprons” out of fig-leaves, cry “Is there no treacle in Gilead?” and have Rebekah rising with her camels, instead of her damsels. It can be no surprise that one self-referential Bible complains that “Printers have persecuted me without a cause”, where most versions are concerned with princes.

But these are all human errors: what about God? It’s not for us to say, but He, in his omniscience, seems to have had a few regrets. Listen to Him in Genesis, cooking up the flood to destroy everything: “For it repenteth me that I have created them”. It repenteth me—that’s worth a pavilion at our festival.

On the other hand, in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the gods are infallible and the humans are the ones slapsticking and pratfalling about. The king’s story is a litany of bloopers: first he unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, and then he insists on heading the royal commission that ends up exposing and destroying himself. And all because his parents thought they could avoid it all happening, as was prophesied, by leaving their baby on a mountain. Talk about your clangers.

It’s not all bad. Who honestly doesn’t prefer Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bathroom on the right,” or Bob Dylan’s “The ants are my friends” to the real lyrics? Who hasn’t had fun with that Bruce Springsteen number later recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which starts “She was blinded by the light” and goes on about wraps and douches and God knows what else? The Byrds’ 1970 album (Untitled) and the Electric Light Orchestra’s No Answer were both so named because of record company snafus, which may well have helped them, considering some of their intentional titles.

Medieval architects designed their cathedrals with the spires slightly off-centre so as not to pretend perfection and offend God. For the same reason, every Persian carpet contains one mismatched thread. City guides include false streets, and dictionaries made-up words, in order to catch out plagiarists. And old journals claimed to make deliberate mistakes, offering prizes for readers astute enough to spot them.

There is, of course, at least one deliberate mistake in this festival.

19 November 2004

Johnny jumps the gun

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:43 am

Someone has to tell Howard that whenever he hears an exciting bit of news he should stop and count to at least ten before he blurts it out to Parliament or 2UE or whoever. Here he is retracting his earlier claim that the female body found in Falluja was Margaret Hassan’s. Meanwhile, media outlets from the UK to the UAE are reporting Howard’s scoop, perhaps scratching their editorial heads over how come their own governments didn’t have access to Howard’s intelligence and are still waiting on stupid old DNA tests.

Remember the Jakarta embassy bombing SMS? Remember a certain maritime incident involving children? (If you do, you’re a rare voter.) Howard is like the schoolyard kid who’s worked out that if he runs around going “Guess what?” he can at least get people to roll their eyes and say “All right, what?&#8221—good enough for a few moments’ attention. At least he’s taken it back this time, after looking around and realising nobody was out there with him. And even if it turns out he was right this time, that doesn’t make it any less irresponsible.

18 November 2004

The Uncanny Valley

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:47 pm

kids.jpgI’ve just seen a few extracts from the new computer-animated Tom Hanks vehicle (is there anything he can’t do?), The Polar Express, and I’m already freaked out. Still images don’t fully convey the horror of these almost-perfect-yet-deeply-wrong CGI children adrift in their winter wonderland; you should have a look at the commercials yourself if you’ve got the bandwidth. In the meantime I’m going to declare over-rendered digital humans the scary clowns of the new millennium.

I think this is clearly an example of the Uncanny Valley, which should be a suburb of Adelaide but isn’t: it’s that sudden dip in our emotional response to things that look almost human but are clearly not human, first proposed by Japanese robot-guy Masahiro Mori. The idea is that humans have an increasingly warm response to robots as they become less obviously machine-like and more human, but as soon as they get too human we’re repulsed and shut down completely until they become virtually indistinguishable from humans, after which we’re all OK again. I think that this is a pretty neat explanation for the fact that animated bugs, clownfish, ogres and whatnot (as well as conventionally 2D animated humans, and I suppose puppets) can touch and move us as “real” people, but where the aim is to try to look as close to reality as possible the effect is eerie and repellent. Unless it’s just me.

For some reason this issue has worked the Wikipedia crowd into a lather, with some guy swearing up and down that computer animation has nothing to do with the unfortunate Valley, including because “Google search doesn’t show any evidence [of the connection]&#8221. Maybe this is one of the areas where collaborative drafting falls down. Further investigation reveals that a lot of people have already linked the new movie to the old valley, so maybe we should just leave it, eh.

17 November 2004

Now in colour

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:58 am

books.jpgThis week, the Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco has rearranged all of its books in order of colour. So everything’s impossible to find, but it looks fantastic. More pictures here and here.

I really don’t think this is such a bad organisational strategy—maybe not for bookshops, but at least for your own books, CDs etc. How many times have you gone up and down your own bookshelves/racks looking for an item by colour because it’s quicker than reading the titles (and of course because you’ve just shelved everything randomly). If you arranged things by colour like these guys have done, it’d all be much easier, and would also provide an interesting talking point at dinner parties.

16 November 2004

Equinox

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:10 pm

harbour.jpgAfter a couple of months on the air, Equinox is no longer generating the traffic the Herald and I had hoped for. I have been hearing from people (and have no reason to doubt) that the sonnet-per-day thing makes the story a bit hard to follow, what with having to remember what’s already unfolded in quite a few bite-sized pieces over quite a while, having to commit the new instalment to memory in some way in order to maintain some kind of basic narrative arc, and so on. Perhaps it’s something about the nature of the Internet, too: web users are more accustomed to controlling the rate of their information flow, and being doled out a measly sonnet each day may accordingly be seen as a bit stingy and frustrating.

Anyway, as Yogi Berra famously said (providing among other things a great lead-in for Nick’s and my famous article Ballpark Figures: the Real Cost of Sports Broadcasting Rights, back when we were both lawyers): “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s going to stop them&#8221. I won’t tell you how bad the numbers were getting, but I had been bugging the Herald techs to build a link to this site into the Equinox page—and it turns out we’re getting more hits over here anyway (thanks in large part to Hilary Duff, Missy Higgins, and (new this week) the “Stan Eminem pathetic fallacy&#8221, which sounds like a good name for a thesis).

So the solution has been to hype the book a bit more heavily and for a limited time to put the whole thing on the site at once. You can now read it here. It’s disappointing that the experiment has on one pretty respectable view more or less failed, but I do want to thank everyone who has read the sonnets and passed them on to friends so far; I really appreciate it, and I hope you read and enjoy the rest of the book while it’s up, and we’ll see if the new format has any more luck out there.

More nerd words

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:20 am

engrish.jpgWe’re all familiar with the endearing cultural phenomenon known as Engrish or (perhaps less controversially) Japlish, where more-or-less random English words and phrases are plastered over advertising, packaging, T-shirts, stationery, and so on. This isn’t the dodgy translation of instruction manuals and hotel signs we used to see (I had a model truck whose instructions were just astounding, I wish I still had them); it’s aimed at Japanese-speakers and based on the fact that English is in some sense cool.

The same happens in reverse, of course: you see a lot of people going around with T-shirts or even tattoos of Chinese characters and have to wonder whether they mean what their wearers think they mean, if they’ve even given it that much thought. Maybe we’re all going around with the equivalent of “Crocodile Profusion” and “Cats Know Various Things” on our backs, or our skin. And here are some more examples, stolen from various websites, just because they’re so good:

Standard oneself whom be actual is certainly found.

Freshly cooked pasta is paired with chunky saunce for quick cooking in a skillet. It will expand a world of fancy pasta menu.

Happy Days of Young Sheep
I’m a sheep, young handsome sheep. They say every sheep looks like me very much. But look at them carefully. Their faces are a little bit difference. So I’m lonesome sheep. Would you date me?

Drifting story of a awkward bear and pretty penguins.
DON’T ABANDON HOPES, THERE IS THE DENOUEMENT.
Hey, here, here we are!!

HAPPINESS FROG
As I come closee to a dream, my heart throbs.

Natural bears
Let’s go out in a dreamy mood.

MELON SODA
This Sunday morning, time looks to flow especially more slowly than usual.

“Hello, is my voice hearable?”
“Yes, it is well hearable.”
“Let’s go to the movie on Sunday.”
“All right. Let’s do lunch together, after that. It is aware of wonderful restaurant.”

Now it’s everyday man’s job to
LOOK LIKE GOOD NEWS!
What can a believe in?

Sorry, but you can see how addictive this stuff is. Anyway, John McWhorter (again) shows how the Germans have got in on the act (though in a somewhat more tongue-in-cheek way) with their advertisement for McDonald’s “McMorning All-American Breakfast&#8221:

Egg McMuffin: About this Früstücksei lachen ja the chickens.

This is the Preis. Guck at it and think: Oh, very günstig!
The first Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the second Weizenbrötchen, which is unten.
The würzige Stück Speck. Gives you a lecker Geschmack and makes funny Geräusche zwischen the Zähne.
And this is from the Hühner: A crazy good Ei.
This ist the Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung. Käse is very lecker in the morning.
The second Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the the first Weizenbrötchen, which is oben. Please do not verwechseln oben and unten!

Some linguists point out that, although there are hundreds of thousands of words in English, 50% of actual usage is made up of the most common 100 words, and 80% uses only 3000 words. Slightly more advanced linguists counter that although this may be true, it’s the less common words that do the heavy lifting and provide most of the meaning: the rest is largely filler. That seems pretty clear from this example: although there are loads of English words in there, every time something important happens it’s in German.

It’s still pretty funny anyway, but I will tell you that the headline means “The chickens are laughing about this breakfast egg”; knusprig is “crunchy”; Geräusche zwischen the Zähne are “noises between the teeth” and Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung is “melted Cheddar cheese food&#8221. Apparently the official name is Angleutsch, but I’m sure you could substitute your own combination.

14 November 2004

Is America divided?

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:16 pm

purple-usa.jpgWe’ve all seen those terrifying maps of the US with Democrat states coloured blue and Republican states red, with a great red swathe across the whole centre and south of the country and only a few blue scraps clinging to the edges—it really looks like a divided country. There are also a few somewhat inflammatory comparisons between this configuration and the states and territories’ attitudes to slavery before the Civil War floating around, which probably aren’t helping.

This clever-clogs from Princeton has put together another map based on county data, which shows the differences masked by the state-based results. It’s a much more reassuring picture, though what it really shows of course is that the cities voted for Kerry and the rural areas voted for Bush.

12 November 2004

What?

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:31 pm

The Guardian reports that 20 affiliates of ABC in the US refused to screen Saving Private Ryan this past Veterans’ Day (officially it has no apostrophe—but whatever) because they were afraid the FCC might revoke their licences:

“It would clearly have been our preference to run the movie. We think it’s a patriotic, artistic tribute to our fighting forces,” Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three midwestern stations, told the Associated Press.

But Mr Cole said fear of punishment from the FCC—and a belief among broadcasters that last week’s elections revealed growing conservatism in the US—had forced the stations into caution.

“We’re just coming off an election where moral issues were cited as a reason by people voting one way or another and, in my opinion, the commissioners are fearful of the new congress,” he said.

The new fears follow the FCC cautioning NBC for letting Bono say “fuck” during the Golden Globe Awards, and more recently fining CBS stations $US550,000 for showing Janet Jackson’s breast. Now I’ve ranted before about bowdlerising bad language, and I can’t in any good faith object to the occasionally-broadcast breast. And I’d normally say that both kinds of working blue are as nothing to the kids’ emotional and psychological development compared to on-screen violence and bloodshed.

(I know that the only films that discernibly affected me—once I’d recovered from Dot and the Kangaroo, long story—were psycho-violent outings like The Deer Hunter, which gutted me when I saw it much too young, and ruined what looked to be a promising career in Russian Roulette.)

But there’s something breathtakingly hypocritical about not showing a World War II film—one that is particularly renowned for the accuracy of its depiction of battle conditions—on Veterans’ Day, a day meant to pay tribute to the soldiers involved in those very battles, because it’s too violent and they swear too much. I mean, ban it because it’s schmaltzy and manipulative, fine, or because Tom Hanks is in it—but not because it shows war in some way like it is. Add to that the fact that on that same day the new generation of grunts were pounding Falluja, killing everyone in sight and even losing a few of their own, and it just seems farcical.

11 November 2004

Ms Alphabet

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:15 pm

She wore T-shirts and G-strings; she drove an E-Type with P-plates: she was so A-list. She liked X-rated B-movies, O. Henry and *NSync. She left Q-tips in my S-bend and J-Pop on my iPod. She was my H-bomb.

10 November 2004

It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht, the nicht

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:09 am

As part of my general loin-girding for the rewrite of Vellum, I’m reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, which is full of riches. This guy is a bigger word-nerd than I am, and knows all kinds of things about all kinds of languages. Right now he’s talking about Scots, which is a beautiful and often hilarious language, at least to my ears. Listen to the Scots version of the Prodigal Son story:

There was aince a man hed twa sons; and ae day the yung son said til him, “Faither, gie me the faa-share o your haudin at I hae a richt til.” Sae the faither haufed his haudin atweesh his twa sons. No lang efterhin the yung son niffert the haill o his portion for siller, and fuir awà furth til a faur-aff kintra, whaur he sperfelt his siller livin the life o a weirdless waister.

A faur-aff kintra, a weirdless waister—it’s fantastic. If we’d had that back when I was Rod or Todd Flanders, things might have turned out very differently. But it got me wondering: is Billy Connolly actually funny, or does he just talk funny? I mean, imagine if I came up to you at a party and said:

What is it with McDonald’s staff who pretend they don’t understand you unless you insert the “Mc” before the item you’re ordering? It has to be a “McChicken burger”; a “chicken burger” gets blank looks. Well, I’ll have a McStraw and jam it into your McEyes, you fucking McTosser!

Well, it’s kind of funny, but it’s not that funny. You’d probably think I was a bit of wanker. But if Billy Connolly says it, it’s hilarious. Even when he’s out flogging superannuation products, you can’t help smiling. I’ve got a brilliant friend from Glasgow who’s written a book called The Moral Limits of Law: Obedience, Respect, and Legitimacy, which goes like this:

This enquiry seeks to determine whether, inter alia, the mere fact of legal validity confers a prima-facie or more categorical obligatory character upon each legal directive. Where this is the case, there is a moral obligation to obey each valid legal directive, and each violation of a valid law may be doubly wrongful.

Yes, it’s blindingly clever and serious, but if she read it aloud it would also sound just the faintest bit funny. Is that terrible?

To the intrepid Googlers

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:46 am

…who wound up here with these search terms:

poems about anthony minichiello
what does hilary duffs hairstyle look like in the year of 2004?
missy higgins lesbian
girls with tomato ketchup on their boobs

I hope you found what you were looking for, eventually.

8 November 2004

Zhuzh

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

zhuzh.jpgNow, I have little to no truck with this whole Queer Eye phenomenon. First of all because it’s a “reality”/lifestyle/format show and therefore the scourge of our times. Second because I can’t stand this so-called “metrosexual” movement with all its stylings and hand creams and getting your colours done. Christforsake! Sure, we’ve driven women spare for centuries over all this stuff, but it’s not obvious to me that the solution is now to start driving men spare too. Why can’t we all lighten up? Let that poor sap leave his shirt untucked. Or hers.

None of this is meant to condone John Laws’s insane rant, of course. I certainly don’t want to be counted among the frankly disconcerting group of “truck drivers, wharf labourers, free-thinking red-blooded Australian men and [Laws himself]” for whom that rough-headed pillow-biter-smiter claims to speak. I just don’t want to watch the show.

But it does seem to have coined or at least popularised a new word, and that’s always interesting, especially considering the orthographical difficulties involved. People have evidently tried to spell it tsuz, tszuj, tjuzs, zjuj and tjuz, most of which just involve throwing random letters around. The Macquarie Dictionary has chosen zhuzh, which is the only sensible spelling. The American Dialect Society has a bob each way with both zhuzh (yay) and tjuzs (what?), but it also voted “metrosexual” to be the word of 2003 and deserves to be thoroughly ignored.

What we’re talking about here is a voiced postalveolar fricative. Two of them, in fact. They’re only occasionally found in English, for example in the middle of measure and vision, but they’re everywhere in French, as in jeune and Jacques. They also turn up in Eastern European languages, like the Russian Ж which is generally transliterated as zh. The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol ʒ, which is also called ezh. It makes sense: z is just the voiced version of s (they’re alveolar fricatives), and ʒ is the voiced version of ʃ, which we’re all quite happy writing as sh as in shut the hell up, John Laws!

ʒ is transcribed in other ways in other languages. For example, in Hungarian it’s zs, in Polish and Czech it’s a z with a diacritic (ż and ž), and in South American versions of Spanish it can be rr or ll. Nowhere in the world, as far as I can see, is it transcribed as tj—that’s an affricate, if it’s anything.

That u in the middle’s a bit ambiguous, but English has never worked out what do with that pesky near-close near-back rounded vowel. There’s put, but there’s also pub; on the other hand there’s book but also boot (these distinctions do depend on local prounciation and fall down in various parts of England). Nobody’s suggested anything else, though, so I don’t know why I raise it.

I doubt I’ll ever actually say it, but if you choose to, you should know that you’re saying zhuzh, and not any of these abominations that turn out more like chuzz or zudge—if you’re lucky.

7 November 2004

It’s the stupid, stupid

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:11 pm

Michelle Grattan has a good bit in today’s Sun-Herald about what I reckon is the most maddening thing about both recent elections and their aftermath. I don’t think I’ve read a paper since Wednesday without throwing it across the room in mute fury at the baffling smugness of the I-told-you-so brigade:

The line quickly becomes: the winner does not just have majority support but what he has done is judged to be right by virtue of having won that support, and critics have had their case destroyed.

For example, all those who worried about alleged lies in Australian politics are being derided as not just out of touch with what drives the ordinary voter (often true) but as preoccupied with things that don’t matter (not true).

You’d think it was an obvious point, but it’s clearly lost on a lot of commentators, particularly letter-writers (whatever) and our old friend Miranda Devine, who bruises the same pages with another rant about the imagined vitriol of the chardonnay-swilling crowd that doesn’t offer enough non-non-sequiturs to string a quote out of so you’ll have to read the whole thing, or not.

I’ve had about enough of the self-proclaimed “silent majority” banging on and on about how history has now proved—twice—that the concerns of us hey-now-wait-a-minute types were always irrelevant and wrong. That’s just ridiculous. If everyone had voted for Bush, and everyone except me had voted for Howard, I might feel a few pangs. But a numerical majority doesn’t get to decide what’s right, any more than you can vote to change the value of π. That’s not elitist or arrogant, it’s just to say that you still have to listen to the other 49%, even if they do happen to be represented most obviously by people who use fancy words.

At the same time, the solipsism of the left can be just as infuriating. Like, what did The Guardian and its readers really think they would accomplish by brow-beating Clark County, Ohio voters into voting for Kerry? If they were expecting much more of a response than this:

Keep your noses out of our business. As I recall we kicked your asses out of our country back in 1776. We do not require input from losers and idiots on who we vote for in our own country. Fuck off and die asshole!!!!!
Knoxville, Iowa

…then they were as far out of touch as any left-winger was ever accused of. Perhaps even more bewildering (seeing as it involved voters in the same putative country) was the Democrats’ encouragement of celebrity endorsements such as the usual-suspects Vote for Change tour (great music, stupid politics), Ben Affleck’s first vote in a while, and Danny DeVito’s minivan. I mean, doesn’t everyone hate celebrities, deep down—particularly when they tell ordinary folks what to do? Isn’t anyone who’s likely to be influenced by what a rock star says too young to vote anyway?

2 November 2004

The Brits have just discovered Seinfeld

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:14 am

…with the release of the first three seasons on DVD. The Guardian provides a brief overview of this interesting new show from across the pond:

One episode is entirely set in a Chinese restaurant where the cast wait for a table, and George (Jason Alexander) confides his latest girlfriend disaster to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld). He has had to leave midway through sex because he is too embarrassed to go to the toilet in his girlfriend’s tiny flat, where his every move will be heard, and he has ‘an intestinal requirement that surpasses by great lengths anything in the sexual realm’. So how to extricate himself? ‘The only excuse she might possibly have accepted is if I told her that I am in reality Batman, and I’m very sorry, I just saw the Batsignal…’

What? This has to be one of the most famous episodes of one of the most famous comedies ever; but apparently it just never took off in the UK, being shown intermittently by the BBC in the kind of timeslots occupied by the mysterious “Guthy-Renker” here. Apparently it’s part of the long-standing British snobbery about foreign comedy, which surely has grown increasingly misplaced since (in my view) The Young Ones and Blackadder.

The Brits seem to be back on track now, with recent things like Ali G, The Office and People Like Us—but it’s sad to think that they’ve had to go without Seinfeld and similar for so long. At the same time, there is of course almost no British comedy on US television. Maybe this is the lucky country after all.

The Secret of the Secret Syndicate

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:00 am

hardy.jpgI must have read about half of the Hardy Boys books (there were about 60 by the time I got to them) before I realised they were all exactly the same, and I do remember wondering how this Franklin W Dixon could write so many bloody books but never figured out that he couldn’t possibly have. This article in the New Yorker finally set me straight—of course there was no mythical FWD; there was a guy called Edward Stratemeyer who had a syndicate that churned them all out, together with a range of other series from The Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew, all under different unifying pseudonyms.

Stratemeyer used to come up with an outline for each book and send it off to some contract hack to fill it out—which you’d have to suspect a lot of these airport-blockbuster writers now do secretly, and which some (like Tom Clancy, and like Virginia Andrews, who is now dead but keeps churning out sequels to Flowers in the Attic) do more-or-less openly. Then he fixed up the draft according to his own formula:

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

Stratemeyer’s inability to leave a “said” alone gave rise to the infamous “Tom Swifty&#8221, named after another of his series. These are truly awful puns that abuse (strictly) verbs and (by extension) adverbs deplorably, like these:

“This is my second best baseball glove,” Tom submitted.
“The crook went down the stairs,” Tom said condescendingly.
Hamlet completely sucks,” Tom said disdainfully.

God, that’s enough. Anyway, I dropped the Hardys when I discovered their far superior knock-off, the Adventure series by Willard Price, who I think actually existed and was a naturalist. Frank and Joe Hardy’s father may have owned a detective agency, but Hal and Roger Hunt’s father owned some kind of wildlife reserve, and they were always getting into scrapes that involved a lot of detailed information about various animal species. In South Sea Adventure—or it could have been Underwater Adventure—one of them gets bitten by a sea snake; Whale Adventure is pretty gruesome and involves a flogging and a mutiny; and Safari Adventure, African Adventure, Lion Adventure and Elephant Adventure were all, come to think of it, pretty similar. But they were all very exciting and informative, and when I was about 10 I decided to write one for myself, called (obviously) Australian Adventure. It went something like:

Hal and Roger Hunt were swimming out of their depth at the beach when they saw a frightening Great White Shark. “Quick, hit it on the nose!” Hal cried. “The nose is the most sensitive area of the Great White Shark!”

That’s as far as I got, but I think I just about nailed it.

1 November 2004

Good omens

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:45 am

The Green Bay Packers just pounded Washington in the Redskins’ last home game before the election, which has eerie predictive powers. Almost immediately, the Electoral Vote Predictor 2004 found lead-changes in five states, giving Kerry 283 electoral college votes, which would win him the election. Most of Kerry’s states are weakly or barely held, though, while Bush is pretty firmly wedged into his. People are already getting into what kind of meshugahs would arise from a draw. It could be worse than last time, folks!

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