On the NY Times Op-Ed page this morning, Samuel Arbesman, a grad student at Cornell, and Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, test, through 10,000 computer simulations of the entire history of Major League Baseball, the likelihood of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Other scientists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, as well as sports fans everywhere, have declared the streak so improbable as to be nearly impossible. Certainly no one’s come close to it. The next-longest streak is 44 games, shared by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897 and Pete Rose in 1978.
So was it impossible? Not according to the mathematicians. “More than half the time, or in 5,296 baseball universes, the record for the longest hitting streak exceeded 53 games. Two-thirds of the time, the best streak was between 50 and 64 games.”
The real unlikelihood, they add, is that Joe D’s streak occurred in 1941. That’s one of the least likely years. The most likely? 1894. In more than a tenth (or 1,290) of their baseball universes, the longest streak landed there.
DiMaggio is also an unlikely record-holder. Percentage-wise, both Hugh Duffy and Wee Willie Keeler were better shots.
It’s a fun article to read at the start of baseball season, but I would’ve liked a little something, maybe a paragraph, on the human aspect of the streak. Arbesman and Strogatz are merely asserting that it’s mathematically possible for DiMaggio to do what he did. But, for me, part of the reason no one’s come close, certainly since, is that the closer one comes, the greater the pressure.
People begin to notice after 20 games. People begin to comment on it. Everyone becomes aware of it. Then the player becomes aware of it. A certain kind of awareness is harmful in any endeavor, particularly in sports where you have to live in the moment, and I think this would be one of those times. An awareness of what you’re doing would get in the way of you actually doing it. You’d be too much outside yourself, as you are in a slump, rather than inside yourself, where you need to be to succeed. The very success of the streak, in other words, would breed the mentality that would inevitably cut it short.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it would require the mental discipline of a computer. Or a computer simulation.
"In the Shadow of the Moon"
Here's a couple of lasts.
1) Last night I watched the David Sington doc In the Shadow of the Moon and this morning looked it up on IMDb.com. The site listed two under that name: the 2007 doc about the Apollo missions (mine), and something being released in 2009. For a moment I was excited. "Hey, are they making a feature film out of this?" and clicked on the link: "Small Northern California town deals with a pack of modern werewolves." Nope.
2) Last fall Shadow was playing a block from where I work, at the Uptown theater in lower Queen Anne, and I wish I'd seen it then. Wish I'd seen it on the big screen. Or a big screen. The doc also celebrates a time when the world came together, proudly, because of an American accomplishment, so feels like it should be part of the communal experience of theater-going rather than the singular experience of TV-watching. But I blew it. Many didn't. It did alright for a doc — $1.5 million globally — but you feel like it should've done better. It's easy to watch, makes you proud, fills you up. Apparently we can't sell this anymore. Even to me.
3) Last week P and I went to a birthday party in Fremont where I met Rick Shenkman, author of several books and editor at the History News Network, and he and I and some others were talking about his latest book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, which comes out in May, and we got on the topic of the specialization, or "niche-ization" (someone come up with a better term, fast), of the national dialogue, and our current lack of a national meeting place, which is a well-worn topic for me. Someone asked, "What was a national meeting place?" and before I could answer, Rick said, "Walter Cronkite." Exactly. You could also say the Apollo lift-offs were national meeting places, too.
Shadow is made up mostly of interviews with the men who flew to the moon (sans Neil Armstrong, strong on Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin), with the emphasis, obviously, on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently if 11 didn't work, NASA had two back-up missions ready, both in 1969, to ensure that President Kennedy's promise of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely before the end of the decade would be kept. Nice to have national goals. At one point Jim Lovell, commander of both Apollo 8 and 13 (Tom Hanks played him in the movie), talked about how Apollo 8 was switched from an earth orbital launch to a flight to the moon, which he thought a bold move. "But it was a time when we made bold moves," he says. He should've added "smart" to that. We still make bold moves. We still have national goals. They just haven't been smart for a while.
One-sentence review for “Black Book”
Saw Paul Verhoeven's Black Book a while ago, liked it enough (with reservations), but didn't think much more about it until I was researching 2007 U.S. box office and saw the poster again. Suddenly I was reminded of a line from Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound, attributed, in the novel, to a Warner Bros. wag, and used to describe Caesara O'Shea, a beautiful actress Nathan Zuckerman finds himself inexplicably dating after the success of Carnovsky. Turns out to be the perfect one-sentence review for Black Book:
“All the sorrow of her race and then those splendid tits.”
Two interesting and contrasting articles on movie studios in today's New York Times. First, Dave Kehr's piece on the history of United Artists: starting out as the baby of Fairbanks, Griffith, Chaplin and Pickford in 1919, being salvaged by producers Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin in the 1950s, and then reaching its artistic heyday in the 1960s and '70s, backing and distributing such films as Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Raging Bull. In the '90s, in Kehr's apt term, UA became a financial football, "kicked around by various bankers, promoters and avaricious studios." Now it's owned by Sony and MGM (who can keep track?) and headed by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, Film Forum in Manhattan is running a five-week tribute starting Friday night. Another reason to live in New York.
The second article is about a potential split between acrimonious partners DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. What's depressing isn't the split, nor the title subject ("Who keeps the movies?"), but the hints the article lays out about movies-in-the-planning. Transformers 2 is inevitable. But in the lead graf they mention "a comedy about a couple who have to live Valentine’s Day over and over again until they finally get it right."
It's kind of like studio heads who have to produce the same idea over and over again until they get it so wrong it doesn't make any money. And then they abandon it for the next thing. United artists, indeed.
The Meek, etc.
Watched Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ the other night, and while I invariably stick my foot in my mouth bringing up religious matters — stating the obvious or uninformed or just plain wrong — I wondered, as I watched, what bizarre chain of events could make this figure, this particular figure, the leader of an established anything. The meek, the moneychangers, his comments on the wealthy. What establishment could find comfort there? How do they still?
Mentioned this to a friend who quoted a line from Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites: "The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion."
While watching I also had one of those sharp drops into a greater sense of my own inevitable death. Say "0" is complete unawareness of your own death and "100" is total awareness, total insanity. I usually operate on a 15. The other night, for a moment, I rose to about a 50. Shuddered.
When I was a teenager I lived at 50.
"There's always a kid, isn't there?"
Even though I couldn't play a hand of poker to save my life (or yours), I wrote a piece for MSNBC on the five top card movies, to coincide with the opening of the card counting flick, "21." My friend Brett, who's got a pretty good poker face even when he's not playing poker, helped me. Also a dude I met at the 5 Spot on the top of Queen Anne. Interestingly, both he and Brett liked the same film, "Rounders," for the reasons I state in the article. I had problems with it, which I also state, but I like how anti-Hollywood, even anti-American the movie is in this sense: Its tagline went something something like, "You play the hand you're dealt." That's the film. You are who you are. You can't overcome it. Forget Nietzsche or self-help books. "Would you make a different choice?" one character says, to which another replies, "What choice?" There's something truly freeing in this notion.
It's a short piece, but enjoy. Martin Scorsese's next.
“The Wire”: An Appreciation
Does anyone else find it ironic that the day after HBO's The Wire came down, Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York became entangled in a prostitution ring scandal because of a wiretap on his cellphone? Apparently Mr. Spitzer didn't watch the show; apparently he's not as smart as Stringer Bell.
I met the Governor a few years ago. When he shook my hand, he didn't reach in so that it was palm to palm; instead his fingers and thumb grabbed my fingers and he shook those. In essence I couldn't shake his hand back, he could just shake mine. I felt oddly impotent. I don't know if all alpha males do this but it's effective. You should try it sometime.
The loss of The Wire is worse than the loss of Spitzer. I wrote an appreciation of the show yesterday for HuffPost. I urge everyone to watch it. It's more than a cop drama; it explains why the world is fucked up: why, in Bunk's language, shit is fucked. You thought it was just your office, your job, your boss? Watch the show. Keep watching for the characters but keep in mind who rises and falls and why; who's in trouble and who isn't and why. It really does explain the world.
Coupla white guys sitting around talking about movies
The latest MSNBC piece is up. On Tyler Perry.
Also check out my friend Adam's article on John Hughes.
A story in Newsweek claims that the "expert is back" and that user-generated content on the Internet is fading. They say that in this age of misinformation people are crying out for standards and information they can trust, and, as evidence, Newsweek cites the following: 1) Google is creating its own Wikipedia using authoritative sources; 2) Mahalo is creating a search engine with quality-based rather than link-based rankings; and 3)... Well, there is no 3). But the magazine adds some anecdotal stuff about Wikipedia's dustups and Craigslist scammers, and they quote a couple of dudes, like Mahalo's founder Jason Calacanis, who says, "The more trusted an environment the more you can charge for it," but who obviously has a stake in the matter.
The expert is back? I wish.
Here's the real reason why user-generated content isn't going anywhere: It's free. Not to readers but to producers. Ask a professional writer to write about movies and it'll cost you. Ask a "fan" and it won't. Generally a fan's stuff won't be nearly as good as a professional writer's stuff, but, you know, what's "good," right? So as long as the bottom line is looked at — and it'll always be looked at — the people in charge will go for the user-generated content. They'll go for the freebie.
Cute thought, though.
Our long national comeuppance
Gail Collins is both wittier and more substantive than her fellow Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd and she's particularly good today on Pres. Bush's speech before the NY financial community on Friday. She writes:
The country that elected George Bush — sort of — because he seemed like he’d be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering, and all we’ve got is a guy who looks like he’s ready to kick back and start the weekend.
That's pretty much it, isn't it? As long as we were sending other people's kids to die over there (so we wouldn't have to worry about dying over here), we were fine with it. Now it's hitting us where it matters. The volatility of the current market is truly scary and the only solution this guy has is to send out more checks so people can buy more stuff. Except everyone's so worried they‘re not buying more stuff; they’re holding onto their money.
Are his numbers still at 30 percent? Who are these idiots? The atom bomb is old news but at this point you want to quote Alan Ginsberg. I'll finish with more Collins on Bush:
This economic crisis has been going on for months, and all the president could come up with sounded as if it had been composed for a Rotary Club and then delivered by a guy who had never read it before. “One thing is certain that Congress will do is waste some of your money,” he said. “So I’ve challenged members of Congress to cut the number of cost of earmarks in half.”
Besides being incoherent, this is a perfect sign of an utterly phony speech. Earmarks are one of those easy-to-attack Congressional weaknesses, and in a perfect world, they would not exist. But they cost approximately two cents in the grand budgetary scheme of things. Saying you’re going to fix the economy or balance the budget by cutting out earmarks is like saying you’re going to end global warming by banning bathroom nightlights.
Gore Vidal once wrote a piece — in 1973 — on “The Top 10 Best Sellers According to The Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973,” and in the March issue of The Believer magazine I do something similar with movies, but from an historical perspective: the top 10 box office hits according to Variety as of March 19, 1958. What the movies we watched say about what we were; what they say about where we are. You can read an excerpt here.
Also check out the interview between Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your President is?
Good piece here by Larry David on who's better equipped to take that 3 a.m. phonecall.
The biggest problem I'm having with Hillary's campaign is that all of her supposedly winning arguments as to why she'd be a better president than Barack Obama (experience, that 3 a.m. phonecall) are losing arguments against John McCain. He has more experience. If there's a 3 a.m. phonecall — assume a military nature — most Americans would rather have the military man take it. She must know this. And yet the campaign proceeds the way it's proceeding. So she's hoping to win the nomination with one argument and the presidency with another argument — possibly the opposite argument. That's a helluva strategy.
"New Indiana Jones trailer is smash hit"
I live in Seattle and I used to live in Minneapolis and I edit magazines in different states around the country so I visit a lot of newspaper Web sites. It's part of my job and part of my interest. And yesterday I saw the same headline in almost all of them.
About Iraq? Pakistan? About the March 4 showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? No. It was about the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie.
Apparently it's a smash hit. That's what they all said. In fact, if you Google the entire headline in quotes, "New Indiana Jones trailer is smash hit," you'll get (as of this morning) over 58,000 hits. Smash or otherwise.
They all pulled the same AP story by Regina Robertson. About the viral spread of the trailer. About how it's doing well online. About how kids might not know from Indiana but that's the challenge because that's the demographic. The usual quotes from Paramount marketing execs and the Aintitcool.com dude. It was probably the biggest news story of the day.
I understand why it was big. It was about entertainment so it might appeal to kids but it was about an older dude so it might appeal to the newspaper's actual demographics. Classic analog hero in digital age clash. Who will win?
Here's what bugs me. Paramount estimates that the trailer was seen 200 million times in its first week? When are they going to get the actual figures? Paramount says the 4.1 million hits on the Yahoo movie site was a record? What does Yahoo say? Do they have a say? Do they want one? Or are they just waiting to be bought? Now that's a feeling we can all get behind.
It's not even PR journalism, it's TV Guide journalism, because the brunt of the story is less about what's been (the release of the trailer) than what's about to be (the release of the movie in May). It's all about anticipation and more and more that's what we focus on. Culturally we're a myopic country peering into the middle distance for any kind of good (or cool) news. Because the past is so five minutes ago and the present is unknown and uncomfortable. But that thing that's about to happen? That we can anticipate in this way? Hell, maybe that can pull us along a little bit and get us out of where we are. Maybe it's the old dude in the leather jacket who can finally save us. At least for two hours. In May.
Once he gets here, though, he's done. Because his not being here is exactly the point. Then we'll need a whole new headline.
W.C. Heinz: Rest in Peace
The great writer/journalist passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. You can read his NY Times Obit here.
I haven't read much Heinz but he was the writer with the most clips in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century — a great collection for any sports fan — and a source of inspiration to David Halberstam and the New Journalists of the 1960s. He also tells one of my favorite sports stories ever in his profile of football great Red Grange, “The Ghost of the Gridiron,” for True Magazine in 1958. Red Grange is talking:
“Once about fifteen years ago, on my way home from work, I dropped into a tavern in Chicago for a beer. Two guys next to me and the bartender was arguing about Bronco Nagurski and Carl Brumbaugh. On the Bears, of course, I played in the backfield with both of them. One guy doesn't like Nagurski and he's talking against him. I happen to think Nagurski was the greatest football player I ever saw, and a wonderful guy. This fellow who is knocking him says to me, 'Do you know anything about football? Did you see Nagurski play?' I said, 'Yes, and I think he was great.' The guy gets mad and says, 'What was so great about him? What do you know about it?' I could see it was time to leave but the guy kept at me. He said, 'Now wait a minute. What make you think you know something about it? Who are you anyway?' I reached into my wallet and took out my business card and handed it to him and started for the door. When I got to the door, I looked back at him. You should have seen his face.”
Great Clark Kent moment and Heinz knows enough not to get in the way of the story. Then he ends the piece poignantly. Read it, if you can.