Tuesday November 29, 2022
The Task of an American Writer
“The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe 400 people under the lights reaching for a foul ball . . . [or] the faint thunder as 10,000 people, at the bottom of the eighth, head for the exits. The sense of moral judgments embodied in a migratory vastness.”
-- John Cheever, in his journals, as quoted in David Remnick's 1997 article “Exile on Main Street: Don DeLillo's Undisclosed Underworld,” which The New Yorker recently re-promoted online. It's astonishing to me that “Underworld” came out as recently as 1997. The period in which it was published, a period when literature felt like it mattered, seems so old now, like it's part of a long-dead-and-buried culture.
Monday November 28, 2022
Jelani and Me
It's been tough quitting Twitter. Several times a day, I have to quell the itch to put aside what I'm doing, particularly if it's difficult or boring or both, to see what's going on elsewhere, anywhere. To see what's going down. That's what Twitter did for me. It temporarily sated that insatiable emptiness—the thing that keeps saying “Feed me, feed me,” all of our inner Audrey IIs. Last week I described this to my older brother and he said it was classic addict behavior. Yep.
So it's been a little tough. But I feel better about quitting Twitter learning Jelani Cobb has done the same. He cites many of the same reasons I laid out: How it was fun for a while watching Elon Musk screw over his $44 billion investment, as he made one boneheaded decision after another; but reinstating Trump was just beyond the pale.
I like this line:
The singular virtue of the fiasco over which Musk has presided is the possibility that the outcome will sever, at least temporarily, the American conflation of wealth with intellect.
I've thought about that, too, and certainly hoped it might nudge us in that directon. At the same time, our capacity to buy into the strong man/rich man bullshit seems neverending. Gabbo? He'll tell us what to do.
Sunday November 27, 2022
Wagner Does Cagney in Harper
“You gave that man oranges?”
While I was sick with Covid in New York, I tried to pass the time watching movies, but most of them didn't stick. I'd get five minutes in, then hit stop and try something else. I was miserable and not much helped. But for some reason I was able to watch the two Paul Newman detective movies, “Harper” from '66 and the sequel “The Drowning Pool” from '75. Was that the first sequel Newman had ever done? I think it might've been. “The Color of Money” might've been the second.
I'd love to see a deep dive comparing the two Lew Harper movies. The first was made at the tail end of the studio system when they still used green screens for driving scenes, the second during the heyday of gritty, auteurish Hollywood movies, before Spielberg and Lucas infantililzed us all.
One pleasant surprise in “Harper” is a scene with Robert Wagner. He plays Allan Taggart, a whimsical, handsome hanger-on at the Sampson estate who seems intrigued by the private detective game. He wants to try his hand. At one point, he and Harper are trying to get into someone's room and he hurts his shoulder trying to bust down a door that's actually open. That's the gag. Which is when Newman/Harper gives him a gun and asks if he knows how to use it. And Wagner/Taggart goes into an impression of James Cagney:
Oh, I prefer a Thompson, actually. But this will do in a pinch. You dirty rat, you gave that man oranges?
Is the Thompson line Cagney, or is it just the latter part? I like that the latter part is a mix of a line he never said and a line from “Mister Roberts,” which hardly fits the detective/crime situation they're in. I also never realized, or I'd forgotten, that it's the Cagney counterpart to Bogart's strawberries in “Caine Mutiny.” Both '30s Warner Bros. gangsters had a fruit fetish as crazy, WWII Navy captains. Most important, for “Harper” anyway, is that the imitation isn't just a throwaway. Taggart's ability to sound like others is key to the plot.
Of course, Cagney and Wagner co-starred together in the ill-conceived remake of “What Price Glory?” Wagner was a newbie at the time, and apparently director John Ford bullied him on the set. Ford tried the same with Cagney on “Mister Roberts” and Cagney offered to punch his lights out.
Another connection. In one of his books about Hollywood, screenwriter William Goldman praised Paul Newman for acting with Wagner for Wagner's closeups in a climactic scene in “Harper.” Many stars don't do that; they leave it to someone else on the set. But Newman did, and it helped Wagner out greatly, and added so much to the scene. And it's that exact thing that Shirley Jones praised Cagney for in “Never Steal Anything Small”: acting with her, reading lines with her, during her closeups.
Other movies with Cagney impressions:
Saturday November 26, 2022
Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)
Why wasn’t this better reviewed? It got 79% from critics, which is fine, but the likes of “Shang-Chi” somehow got a 91%. Its IMDb rating is 6.7, which is like a C+. I assume the latter is because of the misogynist crowd, and the former who knows. Maybe critics thought it odd to make a movie about a character who was already dead.
How did Black Widow die again? On another planet, right? Right. She survived the blip of “Infinity War” only to die trying to reverse it in “Endgame.” The Avengers went back in time to collect the infinity stones and for some reason she and Hawkeye—the two superheroes without any super in them—are sent to that far-off planet where Red Skull acts like a gatekeeper and you have to sacrifice something you love to get the stone. Thanos sacrificed Gamora; Natasha sacrifices herself. The greatest love of all, I guess.
Hers felt like the most unnecessary death in that movie, and maybe this movie, set between the wars—after “Civil,” before “Infinity”—felt like an unnecessary prequel to critics. But I thought it was rip-roaring fun.
Here we are now
It’s basically a James Bond flick. Early on, at a safehouse in Norway, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) watches “Moonraker” on TV and happily repeats one of Bond’s quips: “I discovered she had a crush on me.” Think of it as a hat tip. “Black Widow” is an action-adventure romp in which spies battle each other in glamorous international cities. It even ends, a la Bond, with our captured heroes blowing up and escaping from the villain’s outré lair. We even get a reprise of “Moonraker”’s most famous stunt: the hero, falling from the sky without a parachute, maneuvering to acquire one.
There’s even a Bond girl.
Well, sure, Scarlett, but since she’s Bond in this analogy, the Bond girl is her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, excellent). We finally get their backstory. Turns out it’s “The Americans.”
In small-town Ohio, 1995, young Natasha and Yelena learn their parents, Alexei and Melina (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies, and they have to flee, past high school football games and one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D., to get out of the country. They also learn, by and by, that their parents aren’t their parents. They’re just agents. The girls are orphans, widows in the movie’s vernacular, who are inculcated into the horrific Widow program by the villainous Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone, also excellent).
At this point we get the opening credits, and it’s a moment where the movie deviates from the fun Bond thing. Bond’s credits are silhouettes of sexy women doing gymnastics on guns over the raucous vocals of the pop star of the moment. Here, we get shots of young girls separated from families by faceless soldiers over the deadened vocals of Think Up Anger’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s powerful. Hell, it’s a kind of critique of Bond credits. You like slinky spy-girls? Well, this is the horror that made them.
(And sure: Why are there Soviet spies in the U.S. four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? And why is Natasha’s superhero name a reference to the Soviet-era program that broke her and hundreds of other girls? You’d think she’d want distance from that. But onward.)
The orphan girls are indoctrinated not only with training but chemicals. It’s in Morocco, taking down a rogue agent, that Yelena is sprayed with a red powder that frees her mind, and sets her on a path to take down Dreykov’s infamous Red Room. First, she sends the extra vials of red powder to Natasha at her safe house, which … How does she know where to send them? I guess they’re forwarded? More, how does Taskmaster, the masked Russian villain, know where to find Natasha? Who knows? But their bridge-battle (nicely done) propels Natasha to Budapest (“Budapesht”) and a rocky reunion with sis. After the obligatory fight, they team up and flee from Taskmaster and the widows.
More backstory: Natasha was able to join S.H.I.E.L.D. when she assassinated Dreykov, but—shades of “Munich”—she had to blow up his young daughter, Antonia, too. She feels guilty about that. But Yelena lets her know, no, Dreykov lives, and—I’ll cut to the chase—so does Antonia. She’s Taskmaster (one-time Bond girl Olga Kurylenko). So that’s nice. Natasha has less to feel guilty about. At the same time, it means she completely failed her first S.H.I.E.L.D. assignment. Oh well.
The two sisters then set about freeing “Dad” from prison—Harbour as the superpowered, out-of-shape Red Guardian is great comic relief—and the three reunite with Mom, the brains of the operation, out in the country. But she betrays them to Dreykov, and they’re flown to the Red Room, which is like a cloud city.
Ah, but at some point Melina has a change of heart, so the Melina who shows up is really Natasha, and Natasha Melina, and this allows our hero face-time with the villain, whom she can’t kill. Some kind of pheromone prohibitor. Except she knows it, which is why she allowed Dreykov to punch her the way he did. Sadly, he wasn’t strong enough to sever the nerves; she has to do that herself.
I would’ve liked it better if she’d killed him there, immediately, but of course he escapes and then dies trying to get out of his exploding cloud city, while Natasha, parachute-less, saves Yelena, and then battles and saves/frees Taskmaster/Antonia. She’s also downloaded intel on where all the widows are around the world. She will free them, too.
She was busy between the wars.
“Black Widow” was written by Eric Pearson, who also wrote “Thor: Ragnarok” (nice) and “Godzilla vs. Kong” (not), and who was apparently on set for filming. He overheard Pugh teasing Johansson about Black Widow’s three-point stance and hair-flip, for example, so he had Yelena tease Natasha similarly. I like that kind of thing. The director was Cate Shortland, who’s written and directed a lot of psychological, female-centric stories (“Lore,” “Berlin Syndrome”), but who, per IMDb, has nothing else on her plate.
Why? We’re in an era when Hollywood is looking under every other rock for female directors, and here’s a good one, and yet nothing. I guess she—and the movie—got screwed over by the times, too. Its original release date was May 1, 2020, the first of the “MCU Phase 4” stuff, but of course Covid shut everything down. So it was delayed until November 2020, then May 2021, then July 2021; and then it was released both in theaters and on Disney+, leading to a lawsuit from Johansson, who was set to get a cut of the box office, which the prescence on Disney+ would and did cut into. The lawsuit was settled last September.
Amid all that, I think Shortland and the movie got short shrift. Again, it’s fun and zippy, with an occasional dark undercurrent as in the opening credits. I liked the evocations of Americana as they flee Ohio: lawns, fireflies, Friday night lights, “American Pie.”
I talk about the movie being like a James Bond movie, but it’s also deeper and more poignant than Bond. One of the first lines we hear is from young Yelena (Violet McGraw) to young Natasha (Ever Anderson). They’re on a playground, goofing around, and having a contest about who can do a backbend the longest. “We’re both upside down,” Yelena says. It’s a little kid’s line, but more than that. After they’ve beaten the bad guys and fallen to Earth, Yelena repeats it. It makes you realize that these are women who have lived their entire lives upside down; and the thrust of the film is getting them right side up again.
Friday November 25, 2022
Quote for the Day
“Being judged by your ability to self-promote is a time-honored American mistake.”
-- Greg LaVallee, “You Can't Code Your Way Out of the Culture Problem,” Slate. LaVallee, the VP of tech at Slate, is reacting to Elon Musk's demand that Twitter employees who “actually write software” send him “a bullet point summary of what your code commits have achieved in the past ~6 months, along with up to 10 screenshots of the most salient lines of code.” LaVallee goes into why this is idiotic and a waste of time—code tends to be written by teams, it has its own story, and Twitter has a culture problem not a code problem—but the above gets at the heart of it. For all American business.
Wednesday November 23, 2022
That Problematic 2023 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot
The last few years have been a slog—and not just because of Covid. Trump before that and family matters before Trump. I've felt stuck. Time kept not moving.
Except of course it kept moving.
I think that's why, when I read Tyler Kepner's article on the new arrivals to the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, I was surprised that half these guys had retired long enough to be on the ballot. "Wait, didn't I just seeing Jayson Werth in the postseason? Wasn't Jacoby Ellsbury just stealing home?
No, Erik, that was 10 years ago.
Here's the overall ballot, including holdovers from previous years, as ranked by bWAR. It's not a list that's going to result in a lot of new members. The best players have some taint against them: PEDs (A-Rod, Manny), cheating scandals (Beltran), Coors Field (Helton). There are two .300/.400/.500 guys (Manny, Helton), two pitchers who threw perfect games (Buehrle, Cain), and two of the best defensive players to ever play their positions (Omar, Andruw), and none of them will make it.
|Player||YOB||'22 %||bWAR||Blk Ink||Gray Ink||HOF Msre||Xtras|
|Scott Rolen||6||63.2%||70.1||0||27||99||ROY 8xGG|
YOB = Years on the Ballot
'22% = Their percentage for last year's vote: 75% or better and you're in
Blk Ink: The so-called “black ink” numbers, or how often do they lead the league in important stats: 27 is a HOFer for hitters, 40 for pitchers
Gray Ink: Top 10 in same: 144 for hitters, 185 for pitchers
Hall of Fame Measure: 100 is a HOFer
Does that just leave Scott Rolen, who got 63% last year, and has generally good numbers, good d, not a whiff of PEDs, and played a position, third base, that's underrepresented in the Hall?
I could make arguments for others. I don't know if I'd vote for them but here are the arguments.
- A-Rod. I know, I know, but look at those numbers. He's top 10 all-time. Without PEDs he would've been ... top 25? Top 50? It's basically the Bonds/Clemens argument—they would've gone in anyway—but for some reason I have more sympathy for A-Rod.
- Manny: .300/.400/.500, and the crazy joy of him.
- Gary Sheffield. I almost feel like he should get the Jim Rice vote. No one wanted to see him at the plate. Like Rice, he was feared. Except Rice passes the black ink test (33) and Sheffield doesn't (4).
- Francisco Rodriguez. Fourth all-time in saves. Plus he made his name early as a Yankees killer during the 2002 postseason. For that, I'm forever grateful.
- Omar. He deserves his own graf.
I should dig into WAR sometime because sometimes I don't quite get it. Omar Vizquel has the ninth-greatest defensive WAR of all time, 29.5, and a 32.9 offensive WAR, and you add them together and you get ... 45.6? So something else is done. Someday I'll look into it.
But let's ignore that 45.6 for a second. By both advanced measures (dWAR) and traditonal ones (11 Gold Gloves), Omar is one of the greatest defensive shortstops of all time. He was also a not-bad hitter: .272 lifetime batting average, 2,877 career hits, 44th all-time. Think of that: Only 43 players in MLB history had more hits than Omar. Plus he walked nearly as often as he struck out: 1028/1087. My point: This isn't Mark Belanger, a great defensive shortstop who couldn't hit. Omar could hit. Mostly singles, sure, but he could hit. And he was beautiful to watch. I know that's not supposed to count but what are we—animals? Let's count beauty. It doesn't come around often.
If I had a vote, I'd vote A-Rod, Rolen, Manny and Omar. That's not a bad class. But it'll either be nobody or Rolen.
Tuesday November 22, 2022
What's on Weibo? Ignoring the Obvious
Now that I’m not on Twitter anymore I’m surfing the internet again. The usual suspects: Times, Post, Atlantic, New Yorker, Slate. Also less-usual ones. Pre-COVID days, I was studying Mandarin Chinese with the Confucian Institute—taking free lessons at the downtown Seattle library—and back then I’d bookmarked a website called What’s on Weibo. It’s an English-language take on social media trends in Mainland China. I thought it was helpful.
So what’s on What's on Weibo these days? Well, the Chinese think Twitter employees are lazy for bucking Elon Musk’s long-hour demands. They have a phrase, “996,” which is like our 24/7, which indicates how much you work if you work in Chinese tech: 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. That's how they think life should be. Sure. Have at, guys.
China is also dealing with more COVID outbreaks like everyone. Beijing is currently fighting a record number of cases.
Related: Two women in the southern city of Guangzhou tried to pick up a takeout order without wearing masks—violating the zero-tolerance epidemic rules—and were detained, tied up, and publicly shamed by officials. The website describes the controversy thus:
There were those people who blamed local anti-epidemic staff for abusing their power, saying that even if the two women were in the wrong, they should have never been tied up like that.
But others thought the women purposely created a scene and were being overly aggressive.
The British Telegraph has also reported on the incident and the debate on social media. Same deal: The women were in the wrong. No, the officials shouldn’t have done what they did.
Everyone is ignoring the obvious. Here's the photo of the incident that's accompany these articles. What's not being mentioned?
It's the titillation, stupid. That's why it's big on social media. Everyone gets to pretend the issues are A, B and C, and harrumph harrumph, but it's really about sex.
I guess I'm curious if officials in other Chinese cities have ever done something similar, and did those stories go nowhere because they didn't have this kind of accompany photo. I wouldn't be surprised.
I'm also curious who, or what, the officials were. What are their titles? They're not local police. Is their position community-based or party-based or what?
Monday November 21, 2022
Movie Review: Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
In “Thor: Ragnarok,” which came out in the before times (for the MCU and us), Thor loses a lot—father, Asgard, hammer, long hair—but director Taika Waititi somehow manages to keep the film loose and funny. You get a tragic moment followed by a winking in-joke and somehow it all works. There’s no disconnect.
Did “Thor: Love and Thunder” ever connect? It felt wrong from the beginning. Its glibness was cartoonish, its tragic moments bone-deep but irrelevant.
It doesn’t help that the tragedy happens to others while the glibness is all Thor’s. He’s clowning while the world suffers. He’s always been the joke superhero in the MCU, and here Waititi turns that up to 11. And it’s not funny.
Implore Gorr, Thor
In the cold open, we follow an emaciated, white-skinned alien, Gorr (Christian Bale), and his daughter Love (India Rose Hemsworth, Chris’ real-life daughter), through a barren desert. I guess they’re the last of their race? That’s what Wiki says but I don’t recall hearing that. Either way, they’re dying. They pray to their god, Rapu, but Love dies, and … Yeah, I know. That name. Underline it a few more times, Taika. Get out that highlighter.
Anyway, Love dies, and as Gorr suffers the loss, he hears a voice whispering to him and drawing him to an oasis in the desert where, whoa, Rapu (Jonny Brugh) lives. He’s not exactly benevolent, this god. First he mocks Gorr and his pain, and when Gorr renounces him he picks him up by the throat and slowly strangles him. But that’s when the whispery voice returns. Seems it belongs to the god-killing Necrosword, which suddenly arises out of the earth, right into Gorr’s hand, and he kills Rapu with it and then vows to kill all gods.
Cut to the god we know, Thor, hanging out and doing battle with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Remember that? At the end of “Endgame,” Thor joined, or invited himself along with, the GGs and headed into space. It was an intriguing idea—combining the two tongue-in-cheek Chrises (Hemsworth, Pratt) on outer space adventures—but I guess Taika thought better of it since they’re not here long. GG work, they imply, is hardly worthy of Thor’s attention. I like the body language of Drax (Dave Bautista, underutilized in the MCU), who stands there watching Thor take care of the bad guys like, “Well, what’s the point of me then?” I think this is around the time it gets super-cartoonish: Thor stopping two alien air-roadsters with Jean-Claude Van Damme-ish midair splits. It just looks stupid. Thor also tends to destroy the thing he’s trying to save without realizing it’s a big deal. And he’s needy. Starlord talks about his own past love, and that’s the thing that matters most, but Thor remains intentionally obtuse on the topic.
Hey, what about Thor’s long-lost love—whom I guess we last saw in 2013’s “Thor: Darkworld”?
Turns out Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has stage-four cancer. And when science is no help, she hears Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, whose pieces are under glass case in New Asgard, Scandihoovia, calling to her. I guess once upon a time Thor told Mjolnir to care for Jane, so it reconstitutes itself and turns her into a female Thor to save her. And when everyone convenes at New Asgard because Gorr is trying to kill the gods there, or something, hey, there she is. His long-lost love. As him.
That’s gotta be weird. There’s a great song by Joe Henry, “She Always Goes,” about the aftermath of a breakup, and it includes the line, “I see her wearing my old clothes,” and this is that but again turned up to 11. She’s not just wearing his old clothes, she’s him. Except the movie never digs into that, it just treats the whole thing as a joke. Thor and Jane act uncomfortably around each other, like seventh graders, and Thor chastises Mjolnir but then has to deal with the jealousies of his own Stormbreaker; and yes, I’m talking about their weapons here, but, like the Necrosword, they can communicate. And admist all these gags, Gorr uses shadow monsters to kidnap most of the children of New Asgard and imprison them in a cage in the Shadow Realm. That's the disconnect again: a bad '80s sitcom mixed with Old European fairy tale.
Taking on Gorr and rescuing the children is apparently too much for two Thors and a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), so they travel, via space ark pulled by giant goats, to Omnipotence City to request the aid of Thor’s longtime hero Zeus (Russell Crowe). He turns them down. Why? He’s old and fat and would rather not. I think that’s it, basically. He’s not a hero, he’s a poser. So Thor winds up defeating him and stealing his thunderbolt and off they go to the Shadow Realm.
On the way, Thor learns of Jane’s cancer, and that Mjolnir isn’t healing her but preventing her from being healed. (Although … stage four? What healing?) Oh, and if Gorr gets Stormbreaker he can use it to access the realm of Eternity, where he’ll be granted one wish. Everyone assumes that wish will be: kill all gods.
Has the MCU told us what is a god, by the way? I mean, I always thought Thor was just a super-powered being from another realm that Scandinavians worshipped as a god back in the day because they didn’t know better—like in that “Star Trek” episode with Apollo. Who knows, maybe Gorr killing all the gods wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Zeus is certainly not much, Odin never anything, Loki nothing but trouble. I guess I’d need to know who all the gods are before developing a rooting interest in the battle.
The battle in the Shadow Realm goes fast: Gorr strangles the women forcing Thor to call Stormbreaker, which Gorr wrests from him. But knowing what he’ll do with it, Thor follows him to the ends of the universe.
Kidding. Jane collapses, reverts, and the next thing we know Thor is on earth quietly conferring with Jane’s oncologist. (Me: Dude? Gorr has Stormbreaker; that’s the whole ballgame. Might want to speed things up.) When he’s ready to take leave of a bedridden Jane, she objects. “You’re going without me?” (Me: Weren’t you just using the remote a second ago? Where was your urgency then?)
But off he goes, Gates of Eternity, final battle. Thor uses the power of Thor, or Zeus, to give all the kids powers so they can take on the shadow monsters (nice 11th-hour trick), then he takes on Gorr. An 11th-hour symbiotic thing develops between Thor and bedridden Jane, and, sensing Thor losing, she shows up as she-Thor to lend a hand. And in the end, as he-Thor and Gorr clash, thunderbolt vs. Necrosword, she-Thor throws Mjolnir, which shatters the Necrosword. And before Gorr can summon its parts again, she clangs Mjolnir on the ground and the pieces of the Necrosword turn to dust. Because sure.
By now, though, the Gates of Eternity have opened and Gorr has slipped through. What does Eternity look like? An endless shallow pool surrounded by puffy clouds, of course. And there, Thor implores Gorr to seek, not revenge, not hate, but the one thing we all really want: love. And Gorr’s one wish becomes the resurrection of his daughter, who, after Gorr and Jane die, is raised on a beach by Thor.
That final scene, urging love, is kind of touching. Bale helps. It saves Gorr, not to mention Thor, but it can't save the movie.
Thor no more?
Who would’ve guessed Thor would win? I don’t mean here, I mean in the number of MCU movies. This is his fourth. He’s now surpassed Iron Man (3), Captain America (2.5), Ant-Man (2 going on 3) and Doctor Strange (2), as the most-depicted of the original Avengers. Thor.
I chalk it up to Hemsworth’s sex appeal since the movies have hardly been box-office or critical wonders. There have been 30 MCU movies, and, with the exception of “Ragnarok” (93%, tied for fourth-best), his Rotten Tomatoes scores are near the bottom: 77% for the first, 66% for “Dark World,” “64% for this. Save “Eternals” (47%), it’s the worst-reviewed in the MCU. And while each iteration has made more money at the domestic box office ($181, $206, $315, $343), none are top 10. This one is 13th. Adjusted, it's obviously lower.
You’d think all of that would preclude a fifth film, but we get a mid-credits scene of Zeus sending Hercules (Brett Goldstein of “Ted Lasso”) to battle Thor.
Does anyone get what M is doing with its CU? The original movies built toward “Avengers,” and the sequels built toward “Infinity War,” but, between this and the multiverse crap, and Eternals and Shang-Chi, I’m not seeing anything being built.
Sunday November 20, 2022
My Last Tweet
I left Twitter last night. I deactivated my account. I'll have to find something else to fill my fidgety soul.
I was enjoying it, how much Elon Musk was screwing over the site he paid $44 billion for, our daily reminder of what an idiot this supposed genius is; but when he put out a poll about reinstating Donald Trump, and then took the results of that poll as gospel, tweeting pompously, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” or the voice of the people is the voice of God, I don't know, it just wasn't funny anymore. People who chide Musk can get booted off the platform. But the man who attempted to violently overthrow American democracy? Who shattered our shaky democratic norms? Who has made it OK for racism and anti-Semitism to creep back into the town square? And is trying to do it all over again? Sure, let's welcome him back.
That's how Musk came in, as a self-professed “free-speech absolutist” and card. He thought he was forthright and he thought he was funny. This was one of his first tweets as owner of the site:
One assumes he was alluding to “political correctness” and “wokeness.” But to give you an idea of his comedy chops, he also posted a video of himself bringing a sink into Twitter headquarters so he could tweet “Let that sink in.” I think he thought he was the cool teacher coming into the classroom whom all the kids would dig; instead he was pelted with spitballs and erasers from day one. It was glorious to watch.
Every move was wrong. Twitter has long used blue checkmarks to verify famous people are who they say they are. I.e., That's really Stephen King, not someone pretending to be Stephen King. Well, Musk thought this smacked of elitism and he wanted to charge for the service: $20 a month. When the real Stephen King balked, Musk responded, “How about $8?” I have to give Musk credit here. He's not funny, but that's the funniest thing he's ever tweeted. It's inept negotation in real time from the World's Richest Man. My favorite take on the fiasco came from Michael Schur, who said that Musk already had a platform in which the Taylor Swifts and Stephen Kings of the world gave him content for free ... and now he thought he could charge them for giving him content for free.
Worse, nothing was being verified. You just paid $8 for the blue checkmark but you could by anybody pretending to be anybody. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Someone pretending to be George W. Bush tweeted how he missed killing Iraqis. Someone pretending to be a drug company said insulin was now free. Someone pretending to be Pepsi Co. said Coke was better.
And tens of thousands pretended to be Elon Musk.
And what did this self-professed free-speech abolutist do with all this? He reversed course without saying he was reversing course. He said anybody pretending to be anybody would be permanently kicked off his site. He also fired top executives, particularly those who had objected to him taking over the company, fired half the staff, then sent out SOSes for some of them to return since the company could no longer perform certain necessary functions. Meanwhile, according to James Surowiecki (“Why Elon Musk Is Blowing Up Twitter's Business”), he sought to assure big-name advertisers that his platform was a good, safe space in which to advertise.
There was also the less-funny stuff: tweeting conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the Speaker of the House; urging people to vote Republican to “balance things out”; blaming advertisers leaving Twitter on left-wing activist groups rather than his own ineptitude.
Then Trump. And that's where I draw the line. This was my last tweet.
OK, so not exactly Fran Lebowitz.
I know I'll miss it. I'll miss the real-timeness of it. I'll miss the top-notch lawyers that I followed whose legal opinions were way more straightforward and helpful than the slow, cautious, often confusing reports from the likes of the Times and Post. I'll miss thinking “I should share this” and then immediately sharing it—usually into a void. I'll miss the baseball cards and baseball talk.
I also know I'll be better for being away from it. When I feel that need—“Is there anything now? Is there anything now? Feed me feed me feed me”—I'll just have to deal.
- Elon Musk Reinstates Trump's Twitter Account, The New York Times
- Trump's Terrifically Stupid Return to Twitter, by Quinta Jurecic, on the Atlantic site
- I Was the Head of Trust and Safety at Twitter. This Is What Could Become of It, The New York Times
- The Fradulent King, Ed Zitron, Substack
- I Studied Trump's Twitter Use for Six Years. Prepare for the Worst., by Brian L. Ott, The New York Times
Saturday November 19, 2022
The 2022 Midterms
James Fallow in his substack says pretty much what I think of political prognostication—just better. Certainly more even-handed. Nary a swear word in the bunch.
He's taking the political press to task, particularly The New York Times, for its awful pre-midterm coverage that presaged doom for the Democrats. He also highlights the Times' bias in these matters.
Midterms tend to go for the party not in power. “Every first-term president since World War II (except one) has suffered midterm election losses,” Fallows writes. “The average loss has been around 30 House seats.” Then he crunches the numbers for those House races. Reminder, this is just for first-term presidents:
- 1962 (JFK): -5
- 1966 (LBJ): -47
- 1970 (Nixon): -12
- 1974 (Ford): -49
- 1978 (Carter): -15
- 1982 (Reagan): -26
- 1990 (Bush I): -7
- 1994 (Clinton): -54
- 2002 (Bush II): +8
- 2010 (Obama): -63
- 2018 (Trump): -41
- 2022 (Biden): -4(?)
I'd forgotten how bad 2010 was—if I ever knew—but chalk it up to right-wing talk radio, and Fox News, and the everpresent fear of a black planet. Plus liberal complacency—mine included.
The point is, first-term midterm losses are all but inevitable. But in 2018, with Trump in office, what was the Times headline?
EDGE IN POLLS MIGHT NOT TIP HOUSE SCALES: OUTCOME HINGES ON A HANDFUL OF TOSSUPS
A bit of a shrug there. It's the Times with their hands up: Who knows?
And their 2022 headlines with Biden in office? For some reason, the shrug is gone.
MIDTERMS SPUR A RUSH OF ANGST AND CONFIDENCE: G.O.P. SHOWS OPTIMISM AS DEMOCRATS BRACE FOR LOSSES
BIDEN FACES POLARIZED U.S. AS VOTE NEARS: ON TRAIL WITH PARTY'S OUTLOOK BLEAK
I've long been against news prognostication anyway. The news is what's been, not what might be, and what's been is tough enough without muddying the waters. But if you're going to do it, at least try to be even-handed about it. And if you fuck up—in not being even-handed, and in not being accurate—how about a mea culpa? Or a nostra culpa? From the Times so far, crickets.
I had no idea how the midterms would turn out, by the way. The Sunday before, we were in the apartment of Patricia's friend Peter Goldman, who once covered national politics for Newsweek, and I said that outright. I had a better sense of 2016, 2020, even 2018. For this year, I just didn't know what forces would matter more: the post-Dobbs, pro-democracy voice or the usual midterm “I don't like how things are so whatever” voice. Peter was also unsure. We both kind of shrugged. If only the Times had done that.
Friday November 18, 2022
M*A*S*H Note: Seinfeld Before Seinfeld
There was this thing that “Seinfeld” did pretty much throughout its run where characters would talk over each other. It wasn't in that Woody Allenish simulacrum of everyday conversation, where dialogue was a series of fender benders. No, in this, each character was involved with their own concerns, their own minidramas, and would voice them, and the other side would voice their own, and it seemed like they were having a conversation but they were actually having two separate conversations. Each was talking and neither was listening. It felt a bit like the way the solipsistic world ran. I'd never seen a TV show, or a movie for that matter, do something similar.
Turns out, “M*A*SH” did it two decades earlier.
Last night I watched the episode “Life With Father” (Season 3, Episode 8), and that's pretty much what happens throughout. There's a mail call and Father Mulcahy learns his sister, the sister, wants to leave the nunnery to have children. This upsets him. Henry's wife sends him a letter giving him permission to have an affair, and, initially buoyant, he slowly realizes, and then conclusively finds out, it's because of a guilty conscience. “An orthodontist, Lorraine?” There's a subplot about a half-Korean, half-Jewish baby needing a bris, and how Frank and Hot Lips object and try to document it. Meanwhile, our heroes Hawkeye and Trapper walk through the episode trying to find 10 presidential faces in a barnyard scene in order to win a pony. They become like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their own show.
I'd already noticed this solipsistic tendecy developing in the mess tent but it really plays out when Henry visits Father Mulcahey, each airs their own concerns, neither listens to the other, and in fact Henry thinks the Father gave him great advice he never gave him. It's totally “Seinfeld” two decades before “Seinfeld.”
The writers of the episode were Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who worked together in television for 30 years, writing episodes of “Mister Peepers,” “The Real McCoys,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and 24 episodes of “M*A*S*H,” including “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Abyssinia, Henry,” a lot of the transitional ones (Col. Potter's arrival, Margaret's marriage), as well as several other mail call episodes. In case this is ever helpful to anyone doing a history of sitcoms.
Don't know if I've mentioned this here, on my own blog, but in my run through the first few seasons of “M*A*S*H,” the actors who have consistently made me laugh out loud are: 1) McLean Stevenson and 2) Jamie Farr. Oh, and Loretta Swit does the best drunk on the show. Hands down. Overall, the show is shockingly undated for something 50 years old.
Thursday November 17, 2022
Baseball Records, 2022 Update
This guy might do it.
I've been busy since the baseball season ended so I haven't had a chance to double-check the usual obscure stastistical stuff I've always liked. OK, some of it I already knew. Like this one:
Did anyone hit. 350?
Nope. Jeff McNeil, Mets second baseman, hit .326. That was the best in the Majors. Best in the AL was Luis Arraez's .317. Which means for a full season, not shortened Covid ones, no one's hit .350 or better since 2010 (Josh Hamilton, .359). Again, this is unprecedented. See: “Where Have All the .350 Hitters Gone?” from 2019. Worse—sans Covid season—it's trending downward:
- .346 in 2018 (Betts)
- .335 in 2019 (T. Anderson)
- .327 in 2021 (T. Turner)
- .326 in 2022 (McNeil)
The new rules attempting to ban or at least corral defensive shifts look to alter this trajectory. We'll see.
How are we on the doubles, triples, homers question?
Here's the background on that. Only seven players in MLB history have ever led the league in all three extra-base categories—doubles, triples and homers—during their careers, and no one's done it since Johnny Mize in the 1940s. When I last checked in, after the 2020 season, these were the only active players who'd led the league in two of the three categories:
- Albert Pujols (Doubles, Homers)
- Miguel Cabrera (Doubles, Homers)
- Nolan Arenado (Doubles, Homers)
- Cesar Hernandez (Doubles, Triples)
But all of the doubles/homers guys were aging and were never triples hitters to begin with. Arenado did hit seven in 2017, which was tied for 5th-best in the NL that year, but that was his high point. Last season he hit one triple, which is one more than either Pujols or Miggy hit. As for the little-considered Cesar Hernandez? Right, he isn't a homerun hitter. Guess how many bombs he managed with 600+ plate appearances in Washington? One.
OK, but do we have any additions?
Not because of 2022. The guys who led the two leagues in doubles (Freddie Freeman and Jose Ramirez) have led he league in doubles before, but that's it. The guys who led the leagues in triples (Gavin Lux and Brandon Nimmo in the NL, Amed Rosario in the AL) are all newbies, as is NL homerun leader Kyle Schwarber. Meanwhile, AL homerun leader Aaron Judge is a repeat homerun guy. He did it his 2017 rookie season, too.
That said, I didn't tabulate any of this after 2021 and that's where we got some movement. That season, Bryce Harper led the NL in doubles to go with his 2015 HR crown; and Whit Merrifield led the AL in doubles to go with his 2019 triples crown.
So, removing Pujols, who famously and gloriously retired after 2022, this is our active chart:
- Miguel Cabrera (Doubles, Homers)
- Nolan Arenado (Doubles, Homers)
- Bryce Harper (Doubles, Homers)
- Cesar Hernandez (Doubles, Triples)
- Whit Merrifield (Doubles, Triples)
None are likely to do it. The likeliest is probably Whit Merrifield. Sure, he only hit 11 homers last season, but five of those were after he was traded to Toronto—where he had 1/3 the at-bats. I'm not saying it's likely, I'm saying it's likelier than, say, Miggy or Arenado or even Bryce leading the league in triples. In my head, Bryce seems like a lean, speedy guy, but he only hit one triple last year, and his career high, 9, was in his rookie year in 2012. He hasn't hit more than three in a year since.
How about this? In the top 10 in each category in 2022, did any names appear more than once? And by top 10, we're actually talking top 11 (for doubles) and top 16 (for triples), because of the last-place tie. So 37 slots in all. Any repeats?
Yes, two. Paul Goldschmidt finished 10th in homeruns with 35 and tied for 10th in doubles with 41. And he already has a 2013 HR crown. But he only has 22 career triples, with a season high of five in 2018 and zero last year.
The other guy is a better bet: Jose Ramirez. He led the league in doubles, as I said, with 44, and tied for ninth in triples with five. He also hit 29 homers, and his career high is 39, and I could see him hitting more of those as he ages and thickens. But first he has to do the triples and time is ticking. He's 30. But at least he's well-represented in all three slots.
Maybe the active player with the best overall shot is Shohei Ohtani. He led the league in triples in 2021 and came close to also leading it in homers with 46. If he'd managed that, he would've been the first same-season HRs/Triples guy since Jim Rice in 1978, who was the first since both Mays and Mantle did it in '55. Nice company. Last season, Ohtani hit 34 homers and 30 doubles, and neither came close to leading the league, but they're both good, solid numbers, and you could see him building on them. He's already got the tough one—the triples. The bigger problem with him is the whole pitching side career, which, one imagines, cuts into his batting time. But if I had to bet, I'd bet on him.
Who has the longest postseason drought?
Not my Seattle Mariners.
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