Friday, September 28, 2007

Social Networking

After reading Reihan Salam's Slate articles about the Facebook Commandments and Related Social Networking Issues, it occurred to me that there is one fundamental problem I can never get past with social networking websites: after a month or so, what's the urge to keep going back?

It takes about a month to do the only things I consider worth doing on these sites:
  • Find all my friends (new ones, old ones, people from high school) and add them or "friend" them.
  • Seek out all the people I had unreciprocated crushes on in high school/college and engage in schadenfreude as I see that they're still hanging around with the same 5 people and still live in the same town they always have. Of course, as most of you know, this can sometimes backfire disastrously if they're doing well.
  • Attempt to spy on people from work that I've met or friends of friends that I meet at a party.
That's about it. I joined Myspace last year and was really intruiged by it for about a month. This summer I joined Facebook and the same thing happened. Clearly, though, as I can tell by my "newsfeed" on Facebook when I log on (and yeah, I still do, about once a week or so), there are people that go there every single day and make minor cosmetic changes to their page. It really seems like a lot of energy to keep it up and it just can't be that fun to, say, add a new movie to your "favorites" list. Perhaps I don't have enough friends around the globe for this to be worthwhile? Maybe I'm just not the kind of person who, as Groucho Marx says, wants to be part of a club that would have me as a member? I dunno.

At least the Facebook interface is relatively clean to look at; the new Rupert Murdoch-controlled Myspace is completely overrun with giant, tacky video ads and friend requests from companies posing as easy, webcam-loving women. The whole thing is too gaudy and, feeling bombarded by bad taste, my experience on the site always feels a little tainted.

That being the case, I still feel like everything I say about these sites has to be taken with a grain of salt because I'm just (a little) too old to have grown up with this stuff as intrinsic part of the high school/college culture. It seems pretty clear that everyone who is in college right now or has finished college in the last year or two pretty much takes this stuff for granted. I kind of figure having a profile on Facebook is sort of like having a Napster account when I was in college: it would have been pretty much inconceivable (or borderline insane) not to have one. Maybe accumulating a lot of friends on Facebook is the equivalent of downloading the most albums from Napster? I don't know.

But I guess I can't really say that I don't care, either, about the social networking explosion. Frankly, I think I'm a little jealous. Being the snobby college student that I was (ok, fine, I'm still a snob, but not as bad), I can just imagine spending countless hours crafting the "favorite bands" section, or making sure that my "how I'm feeling today" quote had just the right level of wry sophistication.

Wait a minute, on second thought, this would have been a disaster! Good lord, I would have done even less studying in college than I already did! I guess sometimes it helps to be just a little behind the times...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Do You Like Pop Music?

If you do, there's only one place to be this friday: The Lucksmiths show at The Knitting Factory!

As a longtime fan and major proponent of the perfectly executed jangle-pop of Australia's The Lucksmiths, I feel the need to at least try to get some people out for this show on Friday. So, here's my brief pitch: If you like mellow autumn-appropriate songs, excellent lyrics, and just the right level of twee-ness (way less than, say, Voxtrot or even Belle & Sebastian), this is the show for you. Plus, the show only costs $12. What are you, cheaper than me? (not actually possible)

In addition, considering the band's small-but-rabid fanbase throughout America and the quaintness of the Knitting Factory, I can guarantee that there will be incredible energy there and the show will create sensations of something I like to call "pleasure." If you find this not to be true, seek me out after the show, and I will personally give you a one dollar refund. That's right-free money! I don't know how you can pass this up...

Good God-More Rod?!?

Continuing on the unexpected Rod Stewart theme this week (which will be, please head over to The Post-Rockist for my breakdown of the unique appeal of the song "Handbags and Gladrags." Expect a lot of pretentious nonsense and you won't be disappointed!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Brief Examination of Rod Stewart (70's version)

This afternoon, as I continued my ritual of long, meandering post-lunch walks, I was surprised to discover my intense and immediate desire to hear some Rod Stewart.

Rod Stewart is, to be sure, not everybody's cup of tea. In fact, he walks the thin line of being almost, but not quite, embarrassing to be a fan of. Whatever you think about Rod Stewart today (with his unending series of truly awful "Songbook" cds), or during his self-parodying work in the 80's, it cannot be denied that during the 70's Rod Stewart put out a number of unimpeachably excellent songs. What makes them so good?
  • His voice: It's impossible not to love the scraggly, 3 AM hoarseness in his voice. He always sounds like he's been in the studio drinking for 72 straight hours and doing take after take after take. And damned if it doesn't make everything he sings sound incredibly heartfelt, personal, and earnest.
  • The world weary vocals: I've decided that world-weary vocals work during every phase of your life-Where you're young, they let you pretend that you've actually been through enough to acquire some hardscrabble wisdom; where you're an adult, you've going through the actual world-wearying process, and its nice to hear a voice that sounds like its been through it and survived; and, of course, when you're older, you can just listen and laugh in reminiscence. Either way, it always strikes the right cord, and people like Rod Stewart and Tom Waits have a true genius for getting that message across.
  • The sound: Especially in the 70's, Rod Stewart's music (both by himself and with The Faces) had a clean, classic rock n' roll sound. Lots of strong guitar, pounding drums, and shouted vocals. Hard to believe, but there was a time when you could have a big rock n' roll sound without it being thought of as ironic (The Darkness), terrible (most of the "stadium rock" bands these days ) or some sort of good, but unoriginal, sound (The Strokes, The White Stripes, etc.). Rod Stewart was at his best at the absolute best time to be Rod Stewart (if that makes any sense).
  • The songs: His best songs (Maggie May, Handbags and Gladrags, Stay With Me, Reason to Believe) have everything you could want in a song. All the elements noted above, perfectly aligned with great, usually very melancholy lyrics. With the possible exception of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, is there a more exquisitely sad song than Maggie May? It has all the elements you could want in a song: thwarted love, the inevitability of aging, and the need for an escape. With a song like this, Stewart's unique talent really comes through. Who else could sing this great verse and make it sound so heartbreaking and believable?
I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school
Or steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool

Or find myself a rock and roll band, that needs a helpin' hand

Oh Maggie, I wish Id never seen your face

So, there you have it, some ammunition the next time someone makes fun of silly ol' Rod "Hot Legs" Stewart.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Outmoded Internet Terms

I was talking with some friends recently, and somebody brought up the old web host "Angelfire." Does anyone remember this? For about two years, it seemed liked practically every page you went to was hosted by Angelfire. It was the home, in particular, of celebrity fan sites that seemed as though they were uploaded by somebody one lazy afternoon and then never looked at again. Then, suddenly, Angelfire seemed to disappear. Its been at least five years since I've even heard that word used, let alone gone to a website that they host.

This got me thinking about other Internet words/terms that were huge for a while and they disappeared seemingly overnight, such as:

"The Information Superhighway" - I don't think this has been used in serious context in years. Is it the word "super?" Does it just read too much like science fiction? Regardless, while the term seems decrepit now, it was only ten years ago that it was a pretty common thing to hear the Internet described as.

"Prodigy" - Remember this supposed "rival" to America Online? For some reason, when I was a kid I had this idea that Prodigy was the "cool" Internet service provider, and that I was destined to get worse service (or, at least, worse access to porn) because we used the huge, and thus inherently uncool, AOL. Where did they go? Presumably they died during the broadband boom, but who knows?

"Chat Rooms" - When I first joined the Internet, AOL chat rooms were big. I'm pretty sure it was the first place I went to the first time I logged on. Chat rooms, of course, have been completely and unutterably ruined by creepy old men. Would any parent even let their son or daughter into a chat room anymore? Who needs them, though, we you can join Club Penguin?

"Excite, HotBot, Lycos..." - Basically every search engine but Google. I remember, in the pre-Google days, when I would go to 3 or more search engines if I was looking for something. back then I remember it being something that people would discuss. "You don't use Excite? Oh man, everything else is crap!" Now, though, Google pretty much runs my life.

"Netscape Navigator" - I guess this might still be around, but I don't know anyone that uses it. I kind of miss, though, that little steering wheel icon that would come up when you loaded the page, it was like you were about to go on a maritime adventure!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Random Political Thoughts...

After my Detroit Tigers bombed in spectacular fashion late this summer, I turned to politics as a way to cheer me up. Everything I've read there is infinitely more entertaining than the performance the Tigers have put on in the second half of the season; the way things are going for the Republicans in particular is almost enough of a distraction for me to let go of the baseball season entirely. Anway, what follows are some completely random and not necessarily related (or interesting) thoughts:
  • I just can't bring myself to harbor any ill will towards General Petraeus. "General Betray-Us" (as MoveOn wrote in their typically strident fashion) just doesn't seem like a fair moniker for someone that seems by all accounts to be a decent and competent person. What has he personally done wrong? Was he supposed to decline the task of navigating the U.S. out of this mess? Was he supposed to get in front of Congress and say "We can't win this thing. Send all the troops home tomorrow." We all knew what he was going to say before he went to Capitol Hill-who exactly did he betray?
  • I just read two excellent articles in this week's New York Review of Books and would highly recommend both. The first one deals with Al Gore and provides some interesting insight into his background on his motivations; the second one is about the Supreme Court, and might make you want to crawl under your bed for the next 5 years or so if you feel the same way about the court that I do.
  • If I never read another word Christopher Hitchens writes, my life will be infinitely sunnier. Although I'm a longtime fan and apologist of his, I'm entirely sick of his arrogant, iconoclastic approach. As a reader, it pains me to read someone whose every line is set up to make you seem like a COMPLETE AND TOTAL ASSHOLE if you don't completely agree with every word he says. Regardless of whether I agree with him (and I still often do), I've had enough of his brutish, jackass style.
  • I am flat-out distressed about this rush to move the primaries back further and further. Although, it seems reasonable that in the future things could be amended so that certain states aren't always ignored for the first few months, it is flat out bad for Democracy if the primaries are this clustered together because it makes money too decisive a factor. If the primaries get so clustered that twenty states vote on a candidate in January, there's just no time for smaller (and possibly superior) candidates to build momentum. The big candidates have more money, which affords them a larger staff, more opportunities to travel, and the ability to spend money on ads in a much larger number of states. Everyone may hate political ads, but their reach and influence (especially if the candidates aren't personally in the state a lot) is indisputable. If the primaries stay this clustered, I don't see how anyone but the front-runner in each party could win in any given year.
So, that's what I've been thinking about the last couple of days. Anyone agree? Disagree?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pencils Down

Hand in your sheets at the front of the class. There will be no essay portion, but this quiz will weigh heavily on your final grades. The answers are posted below. Good luck and welcome back to school.

1. couchant- adj. [kou-chuh nt]
def: Lying down; Crouching.

2. galumph- v. [guh-luhmf]
def: To move along heavily and clumsily.

3. pasquinade- n. [pas-kwuh-neyd]
def: A satire or lampoon, esp. one posted in a public place.

4. otiose- adj. [oh-shee-ohs]
def: Superfluous or useless.

5. coxcomb- n. [koks-kohm]
def: A conceited, foolish dandy; A pretentious fop.

6. thaumaturgy- n. [thaw-muh-tur-jee]
def: The performing of miracles or magic.

7. animadversion- n. [an-uh-mad-vur-zhuh n]
def: Strong criticism.

8. frowzy- adj. [frou-zee]
def: Dirty and untidy.

9. pap- n. [pap]
def: Material lacking real substance or value.

10. raillery- n. [rey-luh-ree]
def: Good-humored ridicule; Banter.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Test Your Lexical Command

There are busy days and there are days like today. My brain was primed and ready to create, but with virtually nothing to do, I settled for thumbing through my pocket thesaurus for a while. Overall, Miriam-Webster’s Pocket Thesaurus is greatly lacking, but I did find some nice words to satiate my intellectual hunger. And what better way to share this knowledge than to give an old-fashioned vocab quiz.

So get out some college rule notebook paper, I’ll give you the words today and the definitions tomorrow. See how many you can get (I would have gotten 0 out of 10), don’t cheat off your neighbor’s test, and make sure to use a #2 pencil.

You may begin.

1. couchant

2. galumph

3. pasquinade

4. otiose

5. coxcomb

6. thaumaturgy

7. animadversion

8. frowzy

9. pap

10. raillery

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The John Hodgman Reading Experience

After reading this McSweeneys piece yesterday (I know, enough with that site!) I was reminded of the time I saw John Hodgman speak, a.k.a. my all-time favorite book reading.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of readings. I don't especially care about meeting an author or finding out what they're like, and I don't harbor any pretensions that I'm going to get some clues about how their mind works. Plus, most of the time these authors aren't exactly the most socially-gifted people in the world, and seeing them in person can actually turn you off from the experience of reading them. I still haven't been able to read Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" after her dry, uninspired reading at a bar in the East Village.

Although there are definitely exceptions, they usually seem qualified in some way. I've really enjoyed the two times I've seen Jennifer Egan speak, but I can't shake the feeling that it may have more to do with the searing crush I developed on her than any particular reading talent on her part (though, of course, she's an amazing writer regardless ) .

I liked hearing Chris Abani speak as well, but what I remember from that reading was not so much the story as it was the bizarre explanation that he wrote what may be the "great transvestite novel" weekday mornings in a Starbucks in Southern California. I also liked Sean Wilsey, but, while he was indeed funny and engaging, what was most memorable was his (very loud) use of the word "motherfucker" during a crowded reading in a Park Slope Barnes & Noble.

Back to John Hodgman.

The one thing he has that so few authors do is a true performative element to his reading. When I saw him tour for the paperback version of "The Areas of My Expertise," the reading featured guitar-playing (along with a theme-appropriate song), a tape deck, consistently funny stories that weren't just rehashed version from the book, and a free gift of "hobo chalk" for the members of the audience!

The highlight of the night came near the end, when he said that he would take some questions from the audience. Due to the "extreme discomfort" caused by this "level of intimacy," Hodgman distributed walkie-talkies to the audience so that they could ask their questions through it and provide a buffer. Of course, they ended up being cheap, ineffective walkie-talkies and while audience members tried to get them to work, everyone else was screaming with laughter at the absurd premise combined with Hodgman's laconic responses: "Are you holding the button down?" "Try holding it up to your mouth." And so on.

Anyway, by taking the time to make his reading something more than it needed to be, Hodgman created an amazing environment and probably sold a lot more copies, too. A year later, I still talk about that reading all the time and definitely still recommend that book to my friends.

So, that's my favorite reading. Anyone else have an especially memorable reading that stuck with them?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Novak Djokovic and the U.S. Open

I've got a new favorite tennis player: Novak Djokovic

Beyond the fact that he's already on the verge of being a fantastic player (he got to at least the semis of the French Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon), he has one characteristic that about seven people in all of sports have: he's funny. Actually funny. Check out this transcript from the press conference after his loss in the finals to Roger Feder.

In addition, he's been known to do some impressions of the other players on the tour, and they're both funny and actually pretty accurate:

It's so much easier to justify being a sports fan when the sports you follow have a Charles Barkley or a Gilbert Arenas or, it now appears, a Novak Djokovic around to add a little personality.

In addition, there are so many interesting players in tennis right now (at least on the men's side), that the lack of a dominant American player just doesn't hold weight as a reason not to follow the sport. At least watch it for the unsurpassed genius of Roger Federer! Or the defensive brilliance of Rafael Nadal! Or even the exquisite one-trick-ponyness of Andy Roddick and his serve!

(Uh oh, do I sound like an American soccer fan right now?)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

"There Will Be Blood"

This is undoubtedly the lamest entry Better Chatter has posted, but this promotional trailer for P.T. Anderson's new film has me counting down the days until its limited release in December. All I need to mention is that Daniel Day-Lewis(!) plays a turn-of-the-century Texas oil prospector in a story about family, greed, and religion. Let the anticipation begin.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Best of McSweeney's

On and off the last few years I've been a steady reader of the McSweeney's daily website, the offshoot of the literary magazine started by Dave Eggers and friends. Although I don't keep up with it to the extent I used to (too many misses these days, it seems, though maybe I'm just getting left behind?), I have accumulated so many favorites over the years that I decided to put together a top ten list.

So, what follows is my completely biased and sentimental look at The Best of McSweeney's Internet Tendency:

Thirteen Writing Prompts
A much loved piece, eventually inspired a contest in which people tried their hands at some of the, uh, challenging prompts within this article.

9. An Aging Kelis Reflects...
My favorite "Short, Imagined Monologue." This one is a little dated now, I admit, but who didn't love (or love to hate?) the "Milkshake Song."

8. Marvin Gaye Explains What he Heard Through the Grapevine
Part of a series that John Moe does where he "deconstructs" the lyrics to famous songs. This one is both silly and, somehow, kind of terrifying.

7. Winnie the Pooh is My Coworker
I think the title really says it all with this one.

6. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meeting People More Famous than You
Michael Ian Black gives extremely helpful advice on how to approach famous people. One important tip: give money.

People Whose Names are Anagrams of My Own-Shane Patrick Ryan- Hold a Town Meeting
An inspired piece, which I find all the more impressive because of my personal difficulty with anagrams. This must have taken weeks to write.

4. Dan Kennedy Solves Your Problem With Paper #7
The best of Kennedy's "Paper Advice" columns-Nobody does the voice of the "depressed, solipsistic, aging male" archetype better these days.

3. History's Great Persons Reconsidered
It is a real shame that Tim Carvell doesn't do these anymore. Back in the early days of McSweeneys, you could always count on this column and John Hodgman's "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" for a laugh. This column finally asks the question historians have been too scared to: "What If Elvis Presley had lobster-like claws for hands?"

2. Current Releases
I really don't know how to describe this article or explain why I find it so deeply funny. Does anyone even remember the Vaughn/Travolta movie "Domestic Disturbance" anymore? Regardless, I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes the first time I read this.

1. Truly Groundbreaking Advertising Ideas
This piece, also written by Dan Kennedy, does absolutely everything you could hope for in a short comedy piece: It starts off funny, remains funny, and never lets up.

So, that's my list. Although there has got to be at least 15-20 more that could be included, these are the ones that I'll still go back to reread years later.

Are there any that I'm forgetting? Does anyone else have a favorite McSweeney's piece that merits inclusion?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sneaking Up On Autumn

Oh no, Labor Day is over. It’s back to work or school or whatever it is that makes you miss relaxation. But don’t forget, the weather is still fantastic, restaurant patios are still open, and the hardcore Autumn drinking hasn’t even arrived yet. There’s less than a month of summer left, and that means all the excitement and nostalgia of cooler weather is getting close.

I’m generally a big poo-poo’er of any months not involving warm, sunny weather (growing up in Michigan left me bitter as a November wind), but I’ve decided this is my year to give the cold months a second chance. They shouldn’t be neglected or mistreated simply because I can’t go swimming, wear t-shirts and shorts, or tan my body from an unhealthy pastiness to a robust pale. Fall has much to offer and I’m eager to take advantage of it.

In no particular order, here are a few things we should all be looking forward to:

-High-Quality Movies:
There have been some good ones this summer, but the meatier ones are still to come. Most notably: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. I can already smell the popcorn.

-Them Funny-Colored Leaves:
Having lived in Atlanta for over two years, I haven’t experienced the great northern display of foliage in quite a while. The only thing that makes their breathtaking reds and oranges more glorious is knowing I don’t have to rake them up.

I know a lot of people can’t stand it, even I missed all of last year’s NFL season, but it is the one sport most Americans are still passionate about. A sports bar on a Sunday afternoon will display both the best and worst things die-hard fans have to offer.

-An End To Being Sweaty:
I’ll take 90° over 50° any day, but a thirty-block walk will make even myself long for a few clouds and a nice breeze. Goodbye t-shirts, hello light sweaters.

-Delicious Beers:
When that cool air does start creeping in, a vibrant Octoberfest will seduce you into staying for one more beer on a chilly night. All the fruity summer stuff is phased out while the richer, hoppier brews make drinking the cold away that much more fun.

The greatest holiday. No, we don’t get candy like when we were kids, but as adults we can go to parties the weekend before as well as the night of. Costumes can be elaborate, intelligent, creepy, or head-scratchingly ridiculous. Some of the childhood innocence is gone, but that leaves more room for true spookiness.