Monday, March 31, 2008

One Degree: Ben Stiller and Christian Bale

A special kudos to Miranda for totally blowing last week's challenge out of the water and for being the first person to buzz in on this game who doesn't know me. I thought I was so smart for knowing five movies that John Cusack (Say Anything, High Fidelity) and Jeremy Piven (Entourage), but Miranda counted off ten--take a look at the comments from last week's post for the full list. You are either a huge Pivack fan or a whiz on Google--either way, I'm impressed. Sadly, it is unlikely there will be an eleventh film, as the two seem to be on the outs.

I'm going to have to raise my game! I don't know if I can keep it up, but here goes.
On May 22, 2009, Ben Stiller and Christian Bale are slated to go head-to-head with competing movie premieres with sequels Night at the Museum 2 and Terminator 4. What movie did the two appear in together?
Answers next week! Post your answers in the comments! This one may be impossible without search engines, but see if you can do it without Google, or by just using

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Channel Surfing the Earth

In my last post wrote that if an alien were monitoring photos of what humans thought was important in our lives using flickrvision, they might feel we were a species worthy of survival; on the other hand, if they were monitoring our video posting on YouTube, they just might blow the planet up.

I may have spoken too soon. When I think of YouTube these days, I think of people uploading clips of dogs humping, people throwing up (and worse), the snips of nudity from TV shows and movies, and vloggers spouting inane comments on other's vlogs. It doesn't bode well for humanity if this is what we choose to watch.

And this remains true, but these are only the clips that have snowballed and broken through the noise. They are the clips that get forwarded and bookmarked and commented on, in the same way chain letters and urban legends get passed around. These are the most viewed, most commented, most "favorited" videos.

The ever-updated "Videos being watched right now" area on the YouTube homepage gives obscure videos slightly more attention, but still tends to reinforce the most popular videos.

Spinvision is different. Also created by David Troy, it is essentially the same as flickrvision, only it shows any video that was uploaded to YouTube that same day, visualized as springing up from random locations on the globe. While the user base for Flickr tends to be English-speaking countries, Spinvision pulls from YouTube, which has a more global user base, so these videos are even more likely to show you what is going on in non-English speaking countries.

YouTube also seems to attract a younger audience than Flickr. Older folks invest in expensive cameras that take photos worthy of uploading to Flickr. Younger folks (and 30-40 year olds with kids) are the ones likely to post videos to YouTube that they took on their webcam or mobile phone.

So when viewed via spinvision, YouTube as a whole is slightly more tame than it's most popular videos, though at the same time, more quirky. Below are three clips from Japan, Portugal, and Romania that popped up in the last hour. After viewing, aliens might not want to blow us up, but they might want to collect us as oddities for their traveling zoo.

After all, how else would I have found that video at the top of this post? It only had 20 views and was uploaded a few hours ago. I do not know if "8uma" is just shy, really likes horses (uma is Japanese for horse), is doing a cover of a popular Japanese song called "First Love," or is performing an original composition for his girlfriend who really likes horses. I just want to know where he found that mask! This video's only English tag is "uma," the rest are japanese for horse, guitar, world, music. So unless there are Uma Thurman fans out there who accidentally stumble upon this while searching for video of her latest movie, there is no way this video is going to get the worldwide recognition it so clearly deserves.

I love the Edwin Hawkins Singer's song "Oh Happy Day," it makes me feel, well, happy. To hear it being performed by a Portuguese choir makes me even happier.

Everyone loves breakdancing, even Romanian kids.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Peeping on the Globe

David Troy created a globe that pops up photos from the photographer's location at flickrvision, using Poly9 FreeEarth and Flickr. I'd call the site a mashup, but apparently, he'd punch me in the face for using that term, which to him is so over. I'm sure this site has been around for a while, but I just found it, and it's hypnotic. I know it doesn't include everyone in the world, just those who have internet access, but I still think it's a testament to our connectedness.

These Flickr users have no expectations of privacy, but I feel voyeuristic watching it. The photos are mundane and beautiful, a neverending Day in the Life and a glimpse into what's important in the lives of others: children, vacations, pets, friends, their natural surroundings. Watching flickrvision, I'm like an alien in orbit, monitoring the activities of the earthlings below, wondering if they are a species worthy of survival. I think so.

Doubt I'd have the same opinion monitoring YouTube--that would bring on total annihilation!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Turning it Off: TV and Other Addictions

On January 5, 2008, I decided to stop watching TV and start writing a blog. It hasn't always been easy, and I have my rules of exception, but I'm glad I did it. This is an index of the journey so far.

It's not that I hate TV, it's that I love it too much
Other ways of procrastinating: Why I quit TV
I'm not one of those people: The rules for watching or not watching TV

Breakthroughs: The first time I didn't reach for the remote
TV Withdrawl Kicking In:The cravings

The benefits of giving up TV
Fringe Benefits
: What I could gain by giving up TV
Six Weeks Without TV and Loving It: Glad I did it

Things I'll miss about TV
No More Nights on the Couch Together?: Missing the social aspect of watching TV
Taking a Break from all your Worries: The need for escapism

Internet Addiction
Old Habits, New Habits: Uh, oh. How I might become addicted to the internet

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Video Games to Improve Your Self-Confidence

Who meets with more rejection than a telemarketer? I took a job in college trying to get alumni to donate money to the school. With every "no thanks," I was more tentative. I think I got three donations over the course of the quarter.

Thankfully, for myself and my company, I don't have a sales job, but you might. If so, you may want to listen to this story on NPR I heard as I was driving home today. A professor named Mark Baldwin started a game company called MindHabits based on studies he conducted at McGill University. He and his grad students wondered if he could reduce social stress (does that other person think ill of me?) by playing a game, so they created a game where players needed to find the one smiling face among 15 grumpy ones. They tested it with telemarketers and found that their levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, dropped 17% after playing it just five minutes a day for a week. Not only that, they were rated as more self-confident, and they made more sales.

Their website was swamped by the time I got home. I guess every despondent sales rep driving home this evening tried to download the game tonight.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cancelled Cable, Boosted Broadband

This weekend, my husband suggested we cancel our cable altogether.

We've been using Astound which bundles 7 Mbps broadband internet access, basic cable, and basic local phone for $100, not counting fees. In the past, I had thought about trying to eliminate just the channels I found to be particularly addictive and time wasting (VH1, Bravo, Comedy Central, Food Network, HGTV--my crack, basically), but since it was the same price with the package, we kept them.

But now, we're not even watching network TV; he tuned in three times: for the presidential debates, primaries and March Madness, but that's it. So Sunday, my husband wanted to drop everything but the internet, and use our mobile phones. I convinced him we should keep a land line for emergencies (I guess then we'd better find a rotary phone at a thrift shop if that's the case) so I called Astound last night to drop cable.

I was transferred twice, once to a specialist (about 10 minutes on hold to get there), then to an even more special specialist. I'm guessing they were going to try to convince me not to downgrade, but how do you argue when it's not about price, but someone just doesn't watch TV anymore? To their credit, once I got the special-specialist, he took care of it without any debate and apologized for the wait (I was watching Hulu, so I didn't care).

As for the cable, the existing options were to downgrade slightly to 6 Kbps or up to 10 Kbps. Given that I would still shave off $35/month from my total bill, I opted for the faster option.

I'll be honest, I now understand why cable companies want to fight Net Neutrality and charge more for the right of certain content to be streamed faster. If I'm watching Hulu, where I can see movies online free from networks, it means I'm not paying my cable company for Bravo, NBC, Fox, FX, and SciFi.

But if I didn't watch any of this video on the internet, I'd be fine with the $20 low-speed internet. Instead, I'm paying $55 for faster broadband to get a limited set of channels, rather than $48.50 for more channels. They get $35 more out of me so I can get access to a few shows, which is more than their most basic cable package at $20. So all in all, I think they come out ahead. Granted, I'm not average-- I think most people use Bit Torrent to download shows illegally. But as networks and studios make more options available, that shouldn't be as much of a problem.

Perhaps I'll change my tune if they raise their rates on internet access as a whole in response, but in general, I think the cable companies fighting back the only way they can -- making you jealous of those Silicon Valley millionaires, who wipe their butts with $20s (as opposed to those cable millionaires who only use Abe Lincoln's face on their tush). I guess that's why I only saw this commercial in Georgia, not California.

Monday, March 24, 2008

One Degree: John Cusack and Jeremy Piven

First the answer to the One Degree from two weeks ago (sorry for the break): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman were first credited together for the movie Happy Feet, where they played singing penguin mates. They will soon star together in Australia, a historical epic by Baz Luhrmann set in Botswana. Just kidding.

I don't know how Hollywood works. I know all major movies have casting agents, but sometimes it seems like an actor befriends another actor at some early age and thinks of his buddy for parts in his movie (what else would explain Kate Bosworth being in all Kevin Spacey's movies)? There are the obvious pairs, like Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, but then there are the more obscure duos.

What are the five movies John Cusack and Jeremy Piven have appeared in together?

Partial credit accepted! Answer in the comments! All will be revealed next week.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Celebrity Fans of Battlestar Galactica

The scariest part of giving up TV was wondering how I was going to watch Battlestar Galactica when it came back for it's fourth season. I just trusted that I'd be able to watch it online in some legal, streaming format. I'll soon find out after Friday, April 4. Fingers crossed!

Usually, fans and TV critics will rally around critically acclaimed shows that have low viewership with missionary zeal in the hopes it will not get canceled. There is no danger here of that at this point--the producers of BSG have already said this will be the final season.

Nonetheless, for the few people who read my blog (Hi Dad!) and who have never seen the show, I will recommend it simply so you can have the pleasure of seeing one of the best shows on television. In short, it follows 40,000 humans from another star system traveling through space searching for a planet called Earth, their twelve home planets having been destroyed by the Cylons. In the original system, Cylons were chrome Stormtroopers that rebelled against their human creators. The same is true here, only in addition to the robotic Cylons, some are now indistinguishable from humans and have blended in secret; some don't even know they aren't human.

This show breaks the mold of what most think of as science fiction.
It is more like 24, Lost and The West Wing than Star Trek. There are no alien races to dress up as at a BSG convention. Most of the actors portray humans, civilians and military, trying to figure out how to rebuild a democracy, maintain hope, and survive with their humanity intact after a devastating attack wipes out nearly everyone else. The rest portray Cylons, who have evolved to be so like their human creators, they can have children with them.

In this post-9/11 world, the show has taken on religious, political, and societal issues--but in a way that doesn't so much parallel our world so much as comes at it sideways. If you are liberal or conservative, you'll have a hard time figuring out who to root for, which is exactly why this show is so good--it peels back the tidy labels we put on ourselves and forces us to re-examine our core beliefs. That, and it spins a ripping good yarn.

The promoters of the show put together interviews with celebrity fans. It's as if they met with a marketing agency and said "Gee, how do we connect with people who still haven't watched this show?" and they said "Let's go get celebrity endorsements from every single demographic who might possibly avoid BSG: country-western music fans, African-Americans, heavy metal dudes, and snarky E! television personalities. So aside from the usual suspects--Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fanboy/actor Seth Green of Robot Chicken and Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park (who won the Peabody Award the same year as BSG and have since become devoted fans)--they filmed country singer Brad Paisley, actors Jessie L. Martin and Epatha Merkerson from Law and Order, guitarist Scott Ian of Anthrax, and Joel McHale, host of The Soup waxing rhapsodic about the show.

McHale had the best quip of the show "When you hear the word sci-fi, that literally makes women run screaming. They're like, huh, what? I'm going to read The Kite Runner." My thoughts exactly until I actually saw the three-hour miniseries that kicked off the show.

If you're still not convinced, don't take my word for it, take the word of your favorite celebrity. And if you still don't like it, well, I've got a link to go buy The Kite Runner for you. (You should know, a year later, I still haven't finished The Kite Runner, but I sure as heck am going to finish watching the last season of BSG.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Only Way I'll See Eddie Izzard

I've always thought that comedians, especially improv standup comedians like Robin Williams, have a certain type of genius. If this is the case, Eddie Izzard should win a Nobel Prize. He rifs on subjects as diverse as the Death Star to Colonialism. He's performed entire routines in French. And he hopes to learn German next. Robin Williams himself is a fan. And he happens to be a transvestite, in case you clicked on those links, but it's just not the most interesting thing about him. But lately, he's hung up the fishnet and stillettos he was famous for as a standup for a suit.

Perhaps spurred by the fact we missed our chance to buy tickets to his show over the weekend (should have bought it first thing Sunday, they are now $115 -$648), my husband and I decided to watch Season One of The Riches, which fortunately can be found online at Hulu.

In a way, The Riches doesn't do him justice, but if he had to play a character other than himself, a grifter who gets by on his ability to improvise is perfect. In his standup, what impresses you are his monologues, are so random he at least appears to be composing them on the spot. In playing his gypsy character Wayne Malloy, it's not just about the words anymore, and he doesn't fail to impress.

In the pilot, Wayne's family, fleeing from their gypsy bretheren in their RV, inadvertently causes Doug Rich and his wife to careen off the road, killing both. As it happens, the Riches are moving into a new home in Louisiana that very day, having purchased it sight unseen on the internet. Yearning for something more than living from scam to scam, Wayne pulls the biggest con of his life by assuming the identity of lawyer Doug Rich.

In the scene below they have just spent the night in the Riches house. Watch Eddie's eyes to see the moment he decides to become Doug.

(Note: this clip is cued up to the scene, but you can also watch the entire show when it finishes).

In Wayne's life, even his three kids are props for his scams, though they seem to love the game. As props though, his moments of intimacy with them are rare, at least in the pilot (I do not know if this is a reflection on Eddie as an actor as a self-absorbed performer, or a conscious choice, either way, it is effective; his children are merely satellites, actors in a play he is directing). Intimacy, both in the spiritual and physical sense, is reserved for his wife, Dahlia, who has just finished a stint in prison. She's the only one he really needs, because he doesn't need anything from her. And his guilt over the fact that he's the one who should have been doing time for the last two years is palpable.

But the people Wayne really connects to, really wants to draw in, are his marks, or "buffers" as his kind likes to call them, and it's in these scenes where where Izzard shines, moving in like a snake that has mesmerized its prey. He's like a witty but average-looking lothario who wants to see if can bed an attractive woman, not because he likes her but as a test of his skills of seduction.

Wayne doesn't want to use his skills living from scam to scam, constantly having to pay deference to his clan head and idiot son. He doesn't quite know how, but he wants to be his own man so when Doug Rich's untethered identity just drops in his lap, he seizes the opportunity. But even here, he doesn't reject his skills of obfuscation, he just raises his game. This "liar" tries to pass as a "lawyer," and, as emphasized by the drawl of his new, southern boss, he realizes those roles are not so different.

Izzard's own ambitions seem to parallel Wayne's. Reading this article from the New York Times, he's not a comedian on a lark. He's an aspiring actor who had to break in doing sketch, happened to find success as a whip-smart standup, but wants to be taken seriously.

Or perhaps that ambition is in all of us. Hasn't everyone felt at some point that our special abilities weren't being used in the best fashion, that our current employment is beneath us and that we are capable of much more? Maybe that's the appeal of The Riches--we all want to feel that if we went for that brass ring, that would pull it off with as much panache as Wayne Malloy.

Season Two of The Riches started on FX this past Sunday. To catch up on Season One, watch it free and legally at Hulu.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Favorite Mechanics

My dad's dad owned a gas station, so my father grew up working on cars. For him though, cars are not a hobby; he did not keep a clunker in the driveway to tinker on, nor did he drain his own oil. While he is a DIY kind of guy in many other respects, anything beyond a wiper blade replacement went to the shop. And thus, I didn't grow up under the hood of a car. I once expressed regret to my father that I didn't have that experience, to which he said that cars had evolved so much, it probably wouldn't make a difference. The only piece of instruction I ever got from my dad regarding my automobile was to take it into Jiffy Lube every 3,000 to 4,000 miles and join AAA.

Despite my lack of understanding about how my car functions, I thoroughly enjoy Car Talk, a nationally syndicated radio show on NPR hosted by "Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers," also known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi. The zeal with which these brothers diagnose obscure automotive behavior (or sometimes the behavior of the opposite sex) is infectious and I love to listen to them troubleshoot with a series of questions; kids could learn a lot about the scientific method just by listening to these two question their callers.

Tom and Ray are constantly expressing amazement that two blue collar guys could share the same airwaves with other hallowed NPR personalities (a typical station identification break: "And even though Susan Stamberg throws her radio out the window whenever she hears us say it, this is NPR, National Public Radio."). However, these aren't your everyday greasemonkeys.

Both brothers went to MIT. Before joining his older brother in opening a do-it-yourself car shop in Cambridge Massachusetts, Ray had majored in Humanities and Science, volunteered with VISTA (aka AmeriCorps) organizing GED programs, and taught science to kids. Tom got his degree in Chemical Engineering, did some technology consulting, taught at the university level and got an MBA then a Doctorate in Marketing from Boston University. Tom was invited to do a call in show with local mechanics, he invited his brother Ray, one thing led to another, and they had their own show. Car Talk is the most listen went on to win a Peabody in 1992.

While the show is humorous and entertaining, you can tell the guys are smart and want to educate their listeners, especially when it comes to environmentalism. Thus, it was not a surprise to see them in a guest spot with science correspondent Robert Krulwich on PBS's science program NOVA demonstrating the behavior of molecules in fuel cells back in 2005.

The boys make their another "appearance" on PBS this summer, this time in animated form and going purely for yuks with Click and Clack: As the Wrench Turns. I'll be honest, I'm doubtful it will be as successful as, say The Simpsons, or their radio show for that matter, but I wish them the best of luck. Still, I bet it is funnier than CBS's 1995 The George Wendt Show, which was pretty much based on their radio show and lives, but over which they had little to no creative control.

Knowing Ray's background and having seen them on Nova, what I really think these guys should do is a kid's show, like Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye, The Science Guy. We need more evangelizers of science who can present it in a fun and entertaining way and I think they'd be perfect. Robert Krulwich, go team up with them again! Toss in Tod Rosenberg and you've got a hit!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Just Like Old Times

For the second night in a row, my husband and I are on the couch in front of TV, but we are not watching TV. We are watching a DVD of last season of The West Wing. Why, after so many years, are we watching the final season, even though we've probably missed seasons five and six? Because he saw this video on Slate. Apparently, the character of Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, a Latino congressman who runs for president on a platform of hope, was based on a then little-known Illlinois state legistlator.

It's been ages since I watched this show and it feels like old times. What's old is new again. Want to check it out?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hulu Goes Public

I've been beta testing Hulu since I started this blog. Although NBC has it's own streaming video site that allows embedding, Hulu allows full screen video and the ability to exerpt out clips. But what else would prompt people to actually register for the site, when so much is available without doing that little step?

Hulu finally went live today to the general public and I think the answer is movies. They started with about six during beta, but today there are 100, and there's some pretty good ones. In addition to Sideways, which was part of the beta, they've now got The Big Lebowski and The Usual Suspects.

But there are also some sideshow freaks. For instance, here's Arnold Schwarzenegger's first starring role, dubbed no less, in Hercules in New York. To see it in full screen, go to

Monday, March 10, 2008

One Degree: Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman

First, the answer to last week's One Degree. Her paleness Tilda Swinton played Jadis the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, while James MacAvoy was shirtless but incredibly un-sexy as the goat-legged Mr. Tumnus.

The world is awash in Australian actors, but two of the hottest, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, will be seen together for the first time in a movie in Australia, the new epic by Baz Luhrmann arriving in theaters in November.

But November will not be the first time they appear in the credits together. What movie stars both actors in singing roles?

Answers next week! Submit you answers via comments!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Blindness is Coming

When I read José Saramago's Blindness, in which an entire city goes blind, with the exception of one woman, I hoped it would be made into a movie. Because nearly everyone in the story was blind, I envisioned it being done as an animated film in which characters appeared as indistinct, lightly outlined white figures on a white background, except for the viewpoint of the only sighted character, which would be done in full color and detail. I envisioned it being animated by the same team that did Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

I never thought Blindness would actually be done as a full feature length film, but I guess Nobel Prize winning authors get optioned a lot. The film drops on August 8, 2008 and stars Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Gael García Bernal, Sandra Oh, and Danny Glover. Given that it's directed by Fernando Meirelles, who won an Oscar for City of God, it's bound to be good.

Here's a blog about the movie kept by the director himself featuring stills from the movie, and for those of you who don't read Portuguese, a translation from blogger Nathaniel R.

Let's Give It Up for Nate Dern

Take the sketch comedy of Kids in the Hall, the do-it-yourselfedness of Andy Samberg, Mike Myers' ability to spin characters out of thin air, the absolute randomness of Andy Milonakis, the standup talents of Eddie Izzard, and Steve Martin's determination to not let comedy totally define his persona and you've got Nate Dern.

Okay, now I've built him up way to much, especially for a guy most people haven't heard of, and who frankly is still not sure he wants to do comedy for a living. Nate, a '07 graduate of Harvard in Social Anthropology, appeared in Season 3 of Beauty and the Geek, a reality show that paired girls who think they can get by on looks alone with guys who think they can get by with encyclopedic knowledge and no social skills. When it first came out, I had no interest--it looked like producer Ashton Kutcher was going to punk a bunch of bimbos and nerds. However, an article from Salon got me to start watching.

In each episode, each partner is challenged to stretch out of their comfort zone. In one challenge, the beauties had to read Freakonomics , then stage an interview it's co-author Stephen Dubner. The geeks, on the other hand, had to perform a set at a comedy club, and Nate's standup routine on allergies, well, stood out. It takes a special genius to do comedy and I think he's got it. Nate's not a geek in the traditional sense --it seems he was recruited to star on the show by casting agents at Harvard merely because he was sporting glasses, a beard, and plaid pants. He likes Star Wars, but rather than buying action figures, he wrote songs about Stormtroopers for his tribute band So Long Princess.

He and his partner were strong contenders for the $250,000 prize until the twist ending--rather than competing in a quiz show to win the finale, the winning team would be selected by the eliminated contestants. Had the team been judged solely by Nate, he almost certainly would have won, as he was well-liked by his castmates. Unfortunately, his partner Cecille Gahr, a Hawaiian Tropics model, was catty to the girls and manipulative of the guys throughout the season. In case anyone was even tempted to vote for him in spite of Cecille, Nate petitioned his fellow contestants not to vote for his team, but in losing the prize money, won the hearts of millions of viewers.

After the standup episode aired last year, I Googled him. He had started posting bits of standup he was doing in dorms, as well as odd little shorts of himself. For some reason I Googled him again last week. It seems last summer he interned at the Daily Show (look for the bearded dude playing Jenga) and last fall he decided to go to Cambridge to get a Masters in Screen Media and Cultures and is still trying to decide between teaching and comedy. His video log, which is not necessarily comedic, is terrific--not only is he funny, he's got a photographer's eye and a gift for storytelling. He's so prolific in his posting, I almost feel like I could write a dissertation on him, or at least another post.

But let's get back to the comedy. If he does decide to teach, lucky kids, but unlucky us, because I think he's hilarious. Comedy is hard work, but he's got the raw talent and if he keeps at it, I think he could make it. Although he seems to like improv and standup, he excels at creating characters and doing sketch, with other actors, in monologue, and with himself playing all the roles. Here's a sampling below:

Nat the Poet reads his Kitchen Poem

Sven Major has Super Powers

Drug Awareness (mature language and content)

Super Scrabble (starring Nate, Nate, and Nate)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Knowing is Half the Battle

In the late '80s, cartoons were based on toys like Transformers and Thundercats. At about the same time, public service announcement segments starring the characters were tacked on to the end of many shows, such as G.I. Joe (here's an example) and He-Man, warning them not to call 911 as a prank or hide in abandoned refridgerators. It was as if these shows needed to preemptively counteract arguments that it, was inspiring violent play among boys by doing some social good, but the segment had little to do with the story itself

These days, you'll find that that children's cartoons are usually completely devoid of even these tacked-on lessons. They are either arty cartoons on Cartoon Network, or anime based on a card-trading games in which the only virtue being extolled is persistence to become, say, a Pokemon Master and "catch them all" (i.e. the persistence needed to pester your parents for money to buy the latest card deck for your collection).

However, the cartoons put out by Disney are completely geared around lessons. At least, this is what I gather. I was at the gym on a Saturday morning and happened to catch two Disney cartoons on the TVs in front of the treadmill, The Emperor's New School and The Replacements, and both featured a moral.

In The Emperor's New School , boy emperor Kuzco steals a robot to cheat on his science project, but it promptly goes on a rampage. His friend convinces him he has to take responsibility and build a better robot to stop the one he let loose. Moral of the story: don't cheat, take responsibility.

In The Replacements, tomboy Riley wants to be popular and liked by a cute boy so she gets glammed in a full makeover, but only gets attention from the class bully and is pushed into a fountain by the popular girls. The dunk ruins her hair and makeup, but it turns out, the cute boy likes her better without all that. Moral of the story: just be yourself.

The hipster in me thinks this is hopelessly square, but really, I'm glad that there are cartoons that teach lessons in an entertaining way without being completely preachy. While I would personally prefer to watch cartoons with more sophisticated storylines, I say this because I recently read a New York Magazine article by Po Bronson called "Learning to Lie."

This article highlights several studies about how kids learn to fib. In one, kids are given the opportunity to lie in order to get a prize; some do, some don't. Another set of kids are presented with the same scenario but are read one of two stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf (in which the boy who lies gets eaten by a wolf) or George and the Cherry Tree (the apocryphal story of George Washington confessing to cutting down his father's cherry tree).

Surprisingly, although 75% of people surveyed thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf would be more effective in deterring cheating, in reality, that story increased the rate of lying. On the other hand, the story about George Washington reduced lying by 43 percent. Why? The researchers speculate that kids already know lying can evoke personal punishment, but don't really think about how lying affects their relationships with others, a fact the Washington story highlights. In fact, kids who are threatened with punishment tend to lie better and at an earlier age.

So if kids are watching TV rather than reading Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues or getting socialized by Mom and Dad at the dinner table, I'm glad they are getting a dose of morals from somewhere. In fact, I hope that the writers of these cartoons are keeping up on the latest in child psychology so they can do it even more effectively. Children's networks like the Disney Channel has a sacred trust with society --we let them keep hawking food and toys during the commercial breaks if they will teach our kids wholesome, white-bread values (though woe to the cartoon on PBS that dares to go beyond white-bread).

Cartoon lessons are even keeping up with the times. In another episode of The Replacements, Riley's brother Todd is addicted to keeping up his social network on "Fleemster", so his parents confiscate his computer. He lies about needing to go to the library to play shuffleboard but instead logs onto the public computers to get his fix. Nothing will convince him to give up his online activities until he stumbles upon a pale, oily figure in the library basement--the mysterious, friendless founder of Fleemster. Moral: turn of the computer.

And on that note--

Monday, March 3, 2008

One Degree: Tilda Swinton and James McAvoy

Last week's One Degree featured three-time co-stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth, who will appear this month in 21. They also appeared in Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns. Why she keeps getting cast opposite Kevin Spacey, I'll never know, but if it happens again, I'll begin to think she saw him kill someone, because it ain't her acting.

OK, onto some this week's question. Tilda Swinton just won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Michael Clayton, while James McAvoy was nominated a Golden Globe for his work in Atonement.

In what recent movie did both of them appear in together?

Don't know who Tilda Swinton is? In the words of Stephen Colbert, "She's from a future earth where the sun has been extinguished and albino humankind lives underground--their only source of energy, the charged particles emitted from their iridescent hair." And James McAvoy is the young Scottish actor that is not Ewan MacGregor.

Answers next week! No Googling! Scout's honor! Write your answers in the comments!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Other Monster

If you are like me, you might have assumed that San Francisco's Monster Park (formerly Candlestick Park) was named for the job hunting site But you'd be wrong!

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the naming contract is coming to a close this year after four years, just in time for me to learn that it's Monster Cable that's been sponsoring it the whole time.

Who the heck is Monster Cable? Other than audiophiles, I don't think anyone has heard of this Brisbane California company that makes audio and video cable. I visited their Wikipedia page: they are engaged in lawsuits with, as well as Monster Garage, Monster House, Monsters, Inc., and Monster Energy Drink, to name a few.

Given that that is the case, shouldn't they have insisted on calling it Monster Cable Stadium? Even my husband thought it was who was sponsoring the stadium. With the prominent advertising of at past Superbowls, this is the first company any football fan is going to think of when they see that name. Just Google "candlestick" and after you get past a dozen links that talk about people erroneously assume that was the sponsor, you get to the hundreds of links from everyday people that say is the actual sponsor.

I am reminded of the cowbird that lays its eggs in other birds' nests to be raised and fed by an unwitting mother. The cowbird chick gets all the benefit and will either outcompete it's foster siblings for food or even push them out of the nest. The cowbird's birth mother, meanwhile, makes absolutely no investment, while reaping all the benefit.

Only we are talking about humans here. Obviously Monster Cable knew about the naming confusion even in 2004, or they wouldn't have launched all those lawsuits, but they paid for the naming rights anyway. So not only were they paying their lawyers, they were paying to advertise for another company. Monster Cable, has been drinking your $6 million milkshake and you have no one to blame but yourselves.
Copyright 2008