Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tips for Comedians #2

Tip 2: You need a snowball.

If you've ever tuned in to a comedian halfway through their set you might wonder why everyone is laughing. I felt this while watching a DVD of Robin Williams. I was bored but the audience was in love with him. People are in hysterics because comedians are the sum of all the jokes they have told. We're more willing to laugh at a weak joke in The Simpsons than a weak joke from an amateur. Because one has established itself as a reliable source of funny. I've experienced at this venues that I play at frequently. I can feel that people are laughing because of my reputation. They allow themselves to laugh at my weaker material because they can remember a time when I made them laugh hard.

Establish yourself as a reliable source of funny. I'm a big believer in putting the material that I believe will get a great response near the beginning of my set. When we think of a reputation we think of something established over several years. As a comedian you have to establish your reputation each performance. Whether you're playing a show to strangers or family members -immediately strive for a funny reputation. That way, you win people over and have them laughing at later, mildly funny, jokes. It's a snowball effect. You need to unlock the audience's desire to giggle. They need to trust you -the only reason to trust a comedian is laughter.

I don't strive to put "mildly funny" material in my set. But I can predict that some jokes will cause a huge belly laugh while others will inspire a smirk. Usually I put my second favourite piece near the beginning and I save my favourite piece for about 80% of the way through my set (where a more traditional climax will be).

Tips for Comedians #1

Tip1: Don't tell jokes. Tell pieces.

This is largest difference between an amateur and a professional stand-up comedian. An amateur will tell one joke and then move on to another joke. A professional tends to move from piece to piece.

For clarity, some definitions:
-A joke is anything that you expect will make the audience laugh.
-A piece is several related jokes.

For instance:
I'll use an example of something that got a great response the last time I did stand up. I've bolded each time I expect the audience to laugh.

Right after he had won Superbowl XXXI Terrel Davis looked at his championship ring and said "It's nice to be immortal." Romanowski popped another champagne bottle and patted him on the back "everyone will remember this game." And Terrel said, "No no no, I mean never dying." The locker room went silent. John Elway was the leader of the team so it was his job to break the news. "Um, Terrel... Superbowl rings don't make you live forever." Davis laughed until he realized his teammates were staring at him. Suddenly he got very serious. "Then why did I spend my whole life playing football?"

There's something about this piece that I can make funny because I love storytelling that requires me to play multiple characters. But there is also something in the structure of the piece that audiences enjoy. It keeps delivering jokes within the same piece. Even great one-liner joke comedians work in pieces.

Consider Mitch Hedberg's piece about fish:

You know on TV when they have a fishing show? They catch the fish but they let it go. They don't want to eat the fish but they do want to make it late for something. (audience laughs) Where were ya? I got caught. (audience laughs) Liar, let me see the inside of your lip.

Occasionally he tells a single joke but more often he tells a piece.

Amateur comedians are often disappointed that their material doesn't seem to have an impact. I find it frustrating when someone has a fun topic but only one joke about it. If you think of something funny, make sure you develop some additional jokes to turn it into a piece. Think in terms of how often you will get a response from the audience. Plan at least two separate lines (more commonly three) that you expect will make them laugh.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Duty to Stuffed Animals

My Great Great Grand, I have always felt a very private concern for my stuffed animals. There are two in particular, Nonny and Brown Dog, who still sit in this room.

I don't talk to them.
I don't believe that they have adventures when I am gone.
But I move them.

I feel that their lives are boring because they're forced to stare at the same section of the room. I think it's cruel to make them look at the ceiling or leave them in positions that are obviously uncomfortable. I don't believe in ghosts. I'm not writing this to be cute. I want you to know that I am a mentally healthy adult who habitually projects life onto stuffed animals.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Moral Project final thoughts

Morality is not a rational project. It's not useful to design logical rules. We cannot replace the role God/Truth played in our moral history with theory. The moral answers of Kant and Mill are a flimsy attempt to prop up God up with jargon.

Morality is a psychological project. It's about child-rearing. Not rules but perspective. Train children to see themselves in others. That's the undeniable truth to base a moral code on: other people are like me. I remember reading about Jean Piaget's work about the stages of mental development in children. We have to be trained to understand that others see the world from a different perspective (the Three Mountain Problem). I don't think all adults fully develop this mental ability.

Train people to put themselves in the shoes of others and let morality develop what it will. This psychological state causes people to:

1. Abandon rigidity. It's hard to be certain when you see multiple sides of the story.
2. Be affected. Personalize tragedy instead of being numbed by numbers.

The greatest affront to morality is the inability to see oneself reflected in the enemy. Once you remove the reflection, you become free to persecute, kill, and torture.

If people are going to kill others they should see that they're killing themselves. I don't think that this will stop killing from happening -but it will make it moral.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is anyone interested in philosophy?

I'm doing an unpretentious introduction to Western Philosophy. Socrates, Foucault. Plato, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein, Hobbes and more. A simple summary of why we study them, a couple details, practical examples, and encouragement to investigate your favourites. If you're curious about philosophy and want to be entertained -this is for you. I don't use fancy bullshit jargon. I speak to be understood no intimidate. I have five years of experience teaching senior high school students. A brief glimpse of my style:

-Machiavelli is easily explained by talking about steroid use in the Olympics.
-What Sigmund Freud has to do with perfume commercials.
-Socrates cracking a joke with his life on the line.
-Darwin riding a tortoise.

Give me 90 minutes and get a $40,000 University education. Demand more from your entertainment. Stop waiting for TV to get good. I make philosophy relevant and entertaining and if I don't you can beat the shit out of me. I will awaken your passion for philosophy and then satisfy that passion. The trade-off is I'm no good in bed. I get nervous and "fumbly". The KnowMore Lectures now offers free lecture notes. Come for the cheat sheet, stay for the lecture.

Thursday, December 11th, 2008
Unit 102 Theater
46 Noble Street

Friday, December 5, 2008

We've Got to Show Respect for the Dead

The words of Robert Fisk:
(Conversations with History. Text. Video.)

We desemanticize and make war more lethal in the same way as television, for example, will not show you the worst scenes that we see. I remember once a crew coming back from Basra in the Iraqi/American war, not embedded -- they were on the Iraqi side of the line -- and they came back to Baghdad with terrible pictures. A kid had its hand blown off, a woman is shrieking with shrapnel sticking out of her stomach, and they sent these pictures across to London, to the Reuters bureau, and I remember this haughty voice coming back, "We can't show these pictures. Don't even bother to send anymore." You know: "We're going to have people puking at breakfast time. We -- we -- this is pornography!" You see? And then the worst quote of all. He said -- and I remember his words, I read about it from Baghdad during the war -- he said, "You know, we've got to show respect for the dead." And I thought, "You bloody well don't show any respect for them when they're alive, but when they're in bits we've got to respect their bodies." Heaven spare me.

I always say to people -- on the road, Basra in '91, I saw women, as well as soldiers and civilians, old men, torn apart by British bombs as well as American. And dogs were tearing them to pieces to eat, it was lunchtime in the desert. I tell you, if you saw what I saw you'd never support a war again. But you won't show that on television. And by not showing that on television we present the world with a bloodless sand pit. We pretend war is not that bad. It's "surgical," always "surgical strikes." Surgery's a place where you're cured in the hospital, not where you're murdered or killed or torn apart. Thus, we make it easier for our leaders -- our generals, our prime ministers, our presidents -- to sell us war, and for us to buy into war and go along with that. That makes us lethally culpable and potentially war criminals in a very moral sense of the word -- or immoral sense, I should say.

Really, would anyone support war if they saw it?

Is it immoral to look away?

(the image is from the Vietnam War '68 -not Basra in '91)

The Moral Project

So far, Jonathan Glover's Humanity has inspired me to think about morality (an excellent book recommendation from Ashleigh and Brian).

I'm halfway through the book and, secretly, I enjoy it because it makes me feel smart. I have a background in everything discussed. I recommend this book as a concise yet detailed summary of modern world history. These are the events that are worth thinking about (The World Wars, Stalin's Soviet Union, Vietnam and the My Lai massacre, the Rwanadan genocide, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and other definitive atrocities of the 20th Century).

I keep expecting Glover to make his move and explain how we can restore a strong moral identity in our culture. He certainly admires individuals who stand against the current (those who opposed civilian bombing, fighting in war, etc). The whole book is presented as an answer to Nietzsche who foresaw that trust in God was declining and that we should admit there is no moral standard.

A Quick History of "The Moral Project" in Europe

Phase I. Obey God because He is Truth.
Phase II. Use our rationality to discover God's Truth.
Phase III. There's no truth. Do what you want.

For instance: let's look at what prevents us from taking candy from a child.

Phase I. Good people don't steal. Besides, God would see it and send me to hell.
Phase II. Good people don't steal. Think rationally: would I want to live in a society where everyone stole all of the time?
Phase III. I might get caught.

In the modern shift (Phase III) we have less of an objective sense of what a good person is. Thus, we don't often take principled stances. A principled stance is when you stand up for something because you have a definite rule of what it should be (as opposed to a changing opinion). It might seem worth arguing how we can define, for everyone, what a good person is. But that approach is only useful if it comes from a universally accepted source. And no one agrees on what the source should be (God doesn't do it for some, rationality doesn't do it for others). That's where we're at.

I propose a different way to look at morality.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'd be a teenage dad mathmatician traveler

If I could do it all again I'd be a teenage dad. I've felt, since 18, that I would be in the top three percentile of quality dads.

If I could do it all again I'd model my life after Paul Erdos -the eccentric mathematician whose name is on the most published papers. He carried his life in his suitcase and would arrive unannounced to stay on your couch and collaborate on a paper.

If I could do it all again I'd try my mind at crime. Large and small. To see how much I could take.

If I could do it all again I would join the army, rise as an officer, and shake my head at civvies.

If I could do it all again I would cover my body with tattoos. Permanent embarrassing reminders of past passions. (Tim Brown #81, StratoViper, and Erik Larson's version of Spiderman).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lecturing in Figueres

A student took these pictures of me a couple of years ago to demonstrate that I change position wildly as I lecture.

I remember the place.
It's beside the abstract Isaac Newton statue outside of the Dali Museum in Figueres (Homage to Newton).

I remember the content.
The lecture was about art, genius, and statistics. We were discussing social experiments (like Asch's Milgrim's and Zimbardo's) as well as 'genius' as an outsider personality type (specifically Dali and Newton) .

I have no recollection of why I put my fingers in my mouth.

*This gif is posted at archive.org. It's also where I'm hosting my KnowMore lectures podcast. Communism. Capitalism is up. Available for download or listening online. Unfortunately, the quality is quite poor. I'll improve my equipment for the next lecture. In two weeks: Lecture #3: "All the Philosophers".

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Here are some of my high school revelations:
-When I see the colour blue, is it the same colour that you see? What if my blue was your yellow?
-How is it heaven if my friends go to hell?
-Would I have joined the Nazi Party if I were a German in the 30s?
-If it was funny for us to think that the Greeks believed in Zeus, how do we defend our religions?

And some epiphanies from my adult years:

-You cannot give someone else your experiences (Hesse's book Siddhartha creates this sentiment beautifully).
-What people say to you has more to do with them than it does with you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Are They All In There?

Can you remember brushing your teeth three days ago? Are you sure you're not confusing that memory with eight days ago? Or yesterday?

My favourite question to ask a friend when walking a familiar path is "are they all in there? Every time we walked from here, across the field, to the park. Did each walk produce its own memory?" Certainly I can remember walking and carrying the basketball but my mind is generalizing. But if you were to trigger my brain, perhaps by mentioning that we were talking about Tom Hanks' Academy Awards, my mind would burst forth with the relevant walk. I might remember the exact words of the conversation. The sensation of the weather on my skin. The hand I used to hold the basketball.

Looking into my three-month-old niece's eyes today I remembered reading that we don't have memory until we have language. Nothing will trigger the moment that I spent touching her tiny cold hand. Even though it may be having a momentous impact on her personality, I am the only one with the potential to remember.

Of all the things I lost in the Great Deleting the resource I miss the most is a small text file I kept on my desktop. At odd intervals (sometimes not for months) I would log my day in minute detail. Everything I could remember about the day. Sometimes specific dialogue, what I had for breakfast, how much time I spent reading a particular book. It was a continual sense of wonder to open that file, look into my past and discover how much my mind could be triggered. Now that they're gone, I wonder if the circumstances will ever arise to trigger those insignificant memories. Will I lose them or will they lie dormant? (Is that the same thing? Is forgetting the same as destorying? Is amnesia death?)

Are they all in there?

Sometime I am so energized by the realization that I will die that I feel like I'm almost in reach of something. But it's too confusing to grab hold.

The Greatest Post

My generation uses superlatives because we have to sell our experiences. If what happened to me wasn't the "funniest", "best", or "weirdest", then why would anyone listen? Thus, an office chair with a broken wheel is sold in the package: "the worst thing happened to me at work". The sound of a dropped telephone in the other room becomes "the scariest noise". And a new red shirt can be considered "the nicest".

Have people always had to sell their stories by tacking on exaggerated descriptions? Or is it just because we grew up with commercials that described toys with the word "Turbo"?

I think it has always been a tendency of human beings to exaggerate. To mythologize. Achilles can't be killed. A massive school of dolphins indicates the changing tide of war in the Tale of Heike. The Green Knight is decapitated only to pick up his head and leave the room.

We prefer wild, imaginative interpretations to straightforward facts. A love of exaggeration is prevalent across time and cultures.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


When my mother talks on the phone, she shouts. I can hear her in every room. I love this family. We are very loud. When my parents watched the movie Pearl Harbour they blasted the volume. Blasting volume isn't a frequent feature of our booming household. But it occasionally happens when action movies are rented. The dog unleashes when the doorbell rings.

My brothers and I yell against the injustices of bad movies and poor plays in sports. We get excited when telling a story. My dad does this as well.

I can hear the clothes dryer humming away downstairs. The click-clacking of these keys. I can hear the fan in the bathroom running.

"you have to enable it from the options"
I can hear my brothers talk in the other room. Now they're laughing.

"sometimes you have to let things fall apart. She has to work it all out."
I can hear my mom talk to an upset friend on the phone. She gives really good advice.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Evolution of Cool

It doesn't matter what you think of evolution. Charles Darwin looks like the fucking man in this picture. Look at him lean on that vined wall like it ain't no thing. You know it took him two hours to pick that hat in the morning. And it takes a lot of fluffing to make a beard look effortless.

Work it Darwy. Give me thoughtful, but tortured. Yeah, yeah, yeah! Do that thing with your cape.

He's wearing a fucking cape.

Remember scientists, this was before GQ magazine and hottest celeb lists. Man was ahead of his time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Literate in the darkness

Streetlights have taken night away. Before perma-day, Benjamin Franklin and his friends would run away from the maddening black abyss of nightfall and hold hands as they huddled around a candle. They were terrified into developing electricity. An exaggeration. I forget moonlight can be quite bright.

All science began with a curiosity about the stars. A nightly constant that has been observed, predicted and pondered by every civilization. Sometimes they insisted that you should connect some of them because they looked like animals (do you see the lion?). Today, the celestial wildlife is hidden by the artificial glow from our well-lit cities. I guess we're done thinking about them.

I used to work as a maintenance man at a recreation center. We cleaned up from midnight until eight am. Our ice rink was overwhelmingly lit -the glare on the white ice strained tired eyes. Our auditorium was throbbing with the dull glow of artificial light. It gives a peculiar manufactured look to colours as if we were all shot on a worn video. When we took garbage bags outside to the dumpster it was always amazing to see what time nature was trying to suggest. Inside there is one hour: on.

State education may seem like daycare for teenagers to keep their trouble causing instincts off of the street (my brother's interesting theory) but it does provide one useful tool: literacy. At no time in human history have so many people been trained and encouraged to read. I liked the metaphor of knowing the combination to a safe. Without literacy, information remains locked away. But now I prefer to think we are given a light that allows us to see more.

That should be the criteria for what tools we should expect from our teachers: lights that helps to see more. Basically, I'm arguing that our musical theater unit in drama was bullshit.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Talk'n Nietzsche

My new project is the KnowMore Lectures. I'm part of the Unit120 Collective and it's time I started using the theater space. I'll be delivering a series of straightforward lectures about historical events and philosophical concepts. I've crafted some pretty great lessons from my teaching experience. I always wished someone would cut though the pretentious nature of academia and give me the straight goods. I've realized that I'm at a place where I can do that for others.

I'm going to advertise at U of T campus with these flyer/bookmarks. Advertising is a finicky beast. I remember, years ago, selling zines at the Canzine festival. Plenty of people walk by your table but every so often a crowd forms to investigate your wares. What was it? Was it the way one zine was lying open? Was it that a paltry pile suggested they were selling out? Maddening. Endless second guess fidgeting.

I like these. Even as bookmarks.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Laptop/Sand Mandala

The Buddhists have it right. Nothing serves as a better reminder of the fleeting nature of life than creating an intricate piece of art and destroying it.

To be safe, I made two backup copies before I wiped my laptop. They both failed. My own mini-burning of the Library of Alexandria. All of my files have been cremated and spread on the wind. Is that what the Buddhists do? Very unlike the Christian maintenance of coffined bones and tombstones.

Thanks to Google, anything I sent to a friend remains. But all of my works-in-progress have vanished. Novels, plays, sketches, stand-up, slam poetry, stencils, pixels, ideas, ideas, ideas. It's an experience of death on a removed intellectual level. Physically, I'm happy to have my health. Emotionally, it has put me in a happy, goofy mood. I've been challenged to ponder nonexistence in a way I would wish on everyone. After all, these files are not lost in the bottoms of a closet they are on a formatted hard drive. Utterly destroyed. They are not buried like our recent ancestors. They have vanished like our ancient ancestors.

I've caught myself sulking to my friends but my heart isn't in it. It's funny to catch myself in patterned behavior. I know I have "the right" to sulk but it feels insincere. I prefer to step back and feel what I really feel instead of play the part of what I "should" feel.

There's always something refreshing about destruction.

Monday, October 27, 2008

You Have to Fight This City

It is absolutely pouring outside. This is the part of the rain storm that doesn't last. The brief burst where nature turns it on hard to make us little beasts scatter. I'm watching the street corner of College and Huron. Three people are waiting to cross. One of them has an umbrella. The other two are getting soaked. Bone drenched. In a smaller town they would be huddled close together staying dry. But some where along the way the population past that point.

You would imagine that, in a city, if you were carrying your groceries home you would be bombarded with people offering to help carry them. After all, think how many people are traveling in the same direction.

If you want to be a nice person then you have to fight this city. It can be done but the city is working against you. Let's look at what City is saying.

Look how many faces there are. You can not care about all of these people. I dare you to try. What about that driver who cut you off? Can you care about them? Ha! City 1, You 0.

I contain millions of people. Statistically, some of them are bound to be very bad and scary. What if you helped them? You'd end up as another one of my robbed and murdered victims. That happens all the time in me.

You are inside of me, you are very busy. Too busy for this.

You have to fight this city.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Trying to be Quotable

No one is as simple as others see them. Nor as complicated as they see themselves.

We look down upon other animals from the heights of civilization but it is we who are not allowed to have sex in the sunlight.

Consumers understand little, contribute nothing and demand more.

Environmentalism is a modern millenarian movement. It will be remembered as a relative of the Christian apocalypse.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Time Goes By

In elementary school I marked my age by grade. Older folk (from High School to parents) were lumped together as "adults" (people who had facial hair and a tame sense of humour). I didn't understand how people could confuse what grade I was in. At the time the distinction between Grade 5s and Grade 4s seemed like night and day. I could tell you the grade of anyone in the schoolyard. It was in the way they ran. Their vocabulary. Their attitude. Now they are all children to me. Currently, my age is marked by other people's kids. I've seen two kids grow from babies to storytellers. And now, my sister has a baby and they plan to record her height in a penciled line on the image of a giraffe. A vague memory of my old house. Old pencil marks on the trim of a doorframe.

When I coached improv I would commonly refer to Jurassic Park. This simple Hollywood film about dinosaurs, made in 1993. This Saturday, when I hold an improv workshop for high school students, some of them will have been born in that year.

I think reading Albert Speer's biography (Sereny's extensive Battle With the Truth) has me thinking a lot about time and memory. Imagine spending twenty years in prison training yourself to regret the greatest time of your life. In Germany, no one dares recall the positive impact of the Nazi party before the war. The Holocaust has left an indelible mark on the world's memory.

As John Toland wrote: "If he [Hitler] had died in 1937, he would undoubtedly have gone down as one of the greatest figures in German history."

In 1984, one passionate member of the Nazi Party, recalling the early contributions, stated,

"I want nothing to do with all those people who now claim they weren't [members of the Nazi Party], that indeed they were resisters. I really sometimes wonder who it was who elected Hitler and fought and won all those battles for him. All of Germany, it now appears, was nothing but anti-Nazis. Disgusting." (pg. 180)

What years? Time is only the quality of your memory. Amnesia means your personality is dead. The endless digital photography of Facebook is a struggle to live. To help the mind remember more life than death. Alternately, Dunbar from Catch-22 tried to live longer by making his life as boring as possible in order to slow time.

In elementary school I used to date each page. They trained us to write the date in the top right corner. How foolish I felt in January when I would catch myself writing the wrong year. It wasn't 1988, it was 1989. Get with the times.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stacy and the Toxic Zombies

Friend-made gifts are the best. Right now, I'm wearing a shirt Liz made for my birthday from Mary Blair's concept art for Alice in Wonderland. And the shirt that Andy made for me for Christmas with a Julius Nyerere stencil gets a lot of mileage.

One of the best gifts I've ever made was for Stacy. It was a video game featuring our friends as the characters. It was five years ago that I made Stacy and Toxic Zombies (STZ). I was inspired by Andy and Andrew who were dabbling in their own games at the time.

It features:
Stacy wielding a bow while wearing an elf cap.
Raquel and her inability to hackey-sack,
Peter with his large hair and orange Syracuse jersey.
and secret character Ryan wearing treeplant gear, riding a four-wheeler and firing a shotgun.

Oh, and two hundred plus Toxic Zombies.

I thought it was lost but my brother stumbled upon it and I just finished playing. Amateur but entertaining, it makes me want to make more games. I can remember all of the pain and joy of drawing every animation and coding each feature. Not bad for a first try.

-Creative design: neat goal, shooting arrows and having to collect them to fire them again, unlockable character Ryan, multiple (eight) endings
-The nostalgic video game music
-I enjoyed the game's balance. It was difficult enough to require vigilance -things can turn bad in an instant.
-The inside jokes (Raquel's language, Ryan's terms: 'layta!' and 'steez', the term' soak'em' from Newsies)
-Part of Stacy's supercool equipment is a skateboard. But all it does is make anyone who touches it, including Stace, fall.


-Painfully long intro sequence (recalls my frustration as a kid waiting for a game to begin)
-Some text is cut off.
-Difficult for beginners to figure out how to summon the extremely helpful Ryan.

The game ends when you kill 200 hundred zombies. There's no way for Stacy to lose -she can't be harmed by the pushover Zombies. It's simply a matter of how many of her friends she can rescue and which one of the eight different endings you'll see.

Download here.
I think it'll only work on PCs.

Friday, October 17, 2008

And the Winner is...


Here's an interesting question:

Why doesn't the Academy Awards combine the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar into a single Best Performer category?

They make no gender distinction in the Best Director category so why should they split the Best Performer?

I started boycotting the Oscars after 1997 when Kim Bassinger won an Oscar for her supporting role in LA Confidential. I was shocked to discover that the sexy ingenue/helpless victim with thirty seconds of screen time was considered the best that Hollywood had to offer.

Today, I'm looking for gender bias in the Academy Awards.

Judging an artist's ability to 'act' is clearly subjective. I'll attempt to prove my case by comparing how often the Best Performers were in the film that won Best Picture. Why? I want to show that, even though women are winning awards for their performances, they're seldom in, what the Academy considers to be, the year's best cinema.

It may be an odd approach but the data was interesting. Let's look at the numbers.

It is very common for the winners of Best Actor or Actress to be in a film that was, at the very least, nominated for Best Picture.

1962 to 2008 "Best Picture" Award
In this 54 year span, the winners of the Leading Actress Oscar were in 30 films that had been nominated for the Best Picture. Of those times they were in the Best Picture 7 times (23%). The winners of the Leading Actor Oscar were in 34 films that had been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. This proved to be the leading role in the Best Picture 15 times (44%).

1944-1961 "Best Motion Picture" Award
This is a more dismal era. Nine Leading Men doubled up while no Leading Females were in the Best Picture of the year. I think this clearly demonstrates a history of Hollywood gender bias but it's clear that the situation has improved.

Here's a spreadsheet of my gender analysis of the Academy Awards.
A pale yellow block indicates that the film was nominated for Best Picture.
A bright yellow block indicates that the film won Best Picture.

It's also interesting to point out that the last films to boast the Best Picture with the Best Leading Actress have offered some gender-bending roles (Hilary Swank as a professional boxer, Paltrow as a cross-dressing actor, and Jodie Foster as a star FBI agent).

What do you think of combining the acting awards? What about my wild analysis?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Chapter 2 (serialized novel)

“Tell me what you did.” She doesn’t introduce herself. She simply begins.

"At approximately 0300 we detected overlap in the archives,” the cadet hesitates, “on eighty profiles."



"Emergence pattern?"

"Simultaneous." Inspector Tenka smiles and lets out a long, respectful sigh. She’s exhausted and determined not to let it show. The cadet is expressionless. He’s a muscular giant, the product of the academy’s finest bodymods -a curious physique to sit behind a desk. His hands twitch in the small interface boxes.

She looks around the office. Almost everything has changed. Undoubtedly, this young staff is surprised to find that hitting the emergency connect in the middle of the night has summoned this small, elderly figure. The Inspector’s short, bright white hair is the only sign of seniority in the room. Every data officer is pretending to continue their work. They’re watching through their fashionable heterochromic eyes for her reaction. Eighty overlapping profiles is a legitimate emergency but she shows no sign of panic. She is the only one in the branch who has seen the days of seven percent.

“Continue your report.”

“All profiles were replicas of OrMod’s inner council executive Jana Berrin.“ Now she understands the tension in the room. It’s a corporate job.


“The lowest thirty profiles all register at exactly ninety-six point nine.” Tenka bursts into laughter but the thick-necked cadet only tilts his head in confusion. She realizes that the entire staff is starring at her in anxious silence.

“It’s a game,” she tries to explain. “Games within games within games.” Suddenly she feels lonely and nostalgic. Nothing separates veterans from rookies more than sense of humour.

A data officer’s career can be divided into distinct phases. Cadets take everything very seriously. They want to save the world by discovering the formula that eliminates crime. They analyze the archive with a fervor that soon overwhelms them. Eventually, statistical analysis will make them numb. Force them to step back. They will see human beings as groups of numbers. People become disappointing masses of predictable patterns. By the time they’re mid-career they’ll have become cynical critics of human nature, unable to make the world a better place.
Senior Investigators, the final incarnation of data officers, are at peace. They cease desiring change. It becomes clear to them that every civilization has deviant behaviour. The purpose of law enforcement is to ensure that it stays at four percent. In some generations, the criminals have the advantage, in others, the police. Veterans understand that the role of the data officer is not to stop the pendulum, only to slow its momentum.

“We’ve compiled a list of suspects.” The cadet’s voice brings her back. She can detect a trace of pride in his voice. He thinks he’s close.

“How many?”

“Three hundred.”

“Three hundred suspects,” she contemplates the logistics, “at what level?” The cadet moves his hand in the box and more figures begin to appear. “Let me guess, ninety-six point nine?” He stops in frustration. Games within games. “Have you run a subcon?”

The cadet turns to her in embarrassment. Of course. To this generation, a subcon is an outdated method, something they memorize to pass their exams. They have a dangerous faith in the reliability of the archive. Tenka smiles at the situation. Had not she been as young and misguided? It has come full circle. Now it is her turn to educate the next generation.

"Consider an imp who has been posing as five separate individuals.” She doubts that these cadets have seen a single case of imping in the field. Consider the case of LaMarte, an imposter from the early age of the archive.” Tenka slides her hand into the box and calls up the example. Five people are projected before them. “We knew that LaMarte was masquerading as these five profiles. If you correlate ker features you’ll find a ghost print of the original.” The computer merges the five separate faces into one. The resulting image resembles LaMarte. “There. A subcon scan reveals that imps subconsciously adopt their original features.”

“Inspector,” the cadet asks cautiously, “are you suggesting that these three hundred suspects are the work of one imposter?”

“It seems impossible.” She responds with patience. “But tonight you’ve already seen Jana Berrin appear in eighty places at once. You tell me that there are enough correlating tracks in the archive to suggest that this is the work of three hundred suspects. And everything that you uncover verifies at ninety-six point nine percent. Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd?” The answer is obvious. Ninety-seven percent is the minimum requirement for information to be considered reliable. It was as if all of their data was daring them to discard it. “Someone is playing a game with us to show what they can do. We have no information. We have only what they want us to find. Run the subscan.”

The room fills with projected images of three hundred different people. A small, young woman with a sharp nose poses for a picture in a forest, an elderly man laughs as he holds his wig on in a boat, a middle-aged woman selects a new skin color from a catalogue. Tenka’s peripheral vision picks up a tall, red-headed man waving in a sign-off, a woman saluting in uniform, a well-dressed young man rolling dice, flashes of different skin, eye, and hair colour begin to swirl as the cadet runs the subscan. All of the projected people begin to merge into one. Could all of these lives truly be the work of one imposter? Is the pendulum swinging again? The staff stops pretending to work. They’re all watching for the face to emerge from the overlapping profiles. The room is emptying as all of the data is pulled toward the center. Suddenly, it’s complete and the Inspector is looking at an image of herself.

“We’ve been infiltrated. This imp has detailed knowledge of our investigative methods, khe knows I’ve been assigned ker case, and khe has taken the time to masquerade as three hundred different profiles to play a joke. I need an emergency connect to Daria-Zeh Motema. Now.” Despite the severity of the situation she smiles. You could spend your life in the Department and never see an aberration on this scale. It was genius.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shades and Ol' Lady Violet (who wants yellow)

I just watched the shadiest character in Lillian Smith.

He came up to a guy who was working at a table across from me. Clearly he recognized him because he knew his name but they didn't know each other well. He began asking what the guy was working on, where he was living, etc. Eventually they agreed to hang out but Shady said he lost working guy's home number.
So the guy wrote it down but Shady didn't want it. He glanced at it and claimed he had memorized it. Then he asked if he could come and visit sometime 'y'know, just show up' and the working guy said 'maybe if you call first, I have roommates'. And Shades asked 'what would they do if I just showed up? Without you there? Would they let me stay? Would that be cool?' Working guy insisted that he be contacted first but Shady explained that 'my email is not working'. They parted without clear plans.

(15 minutes later)

Holy shit, you just missed my favourite old woman. Some seniors are here with a chaperon. My favourite was complaining about not wanting to look at children's books because she's seen all of them already. She's awesome at muttering. I just watched her mutter something about how she likes yellow as she proceeded to rip a full page out of a children's book.

Now Shady's back talking about his social workers, seeing psychiatrists and taking meds for his sycophrenia. He's living in a shelter. Poor guy's trying to network.

Oh shit, the chaperon just caught old lady rips-a-lot taking another page. My favourite senior is sticking to her guns, claiming 'she's done it before' as she stuffs the page into her purse. The best part is she looks like a picturesque 'nice old person' complete with cane and full body violet outfit (sweater and pants).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Friday Film blog

I applied to be Shameless magazine's Friday Film blogger (providing Feminist readings of cinema) but I didn't get the gig. The nice feature of the internet is that I can still publish all of the posts that I was planning. So I'm starting a Friday Film column on my blog. For the first installment, here's what I sent them for the application.

Breaking down the Wall-E?

The blogosphere is in love with the gender-bending film Wall-E, Pixar's latest CGI blockbuster. It's a story where a male robot falls in love with a female robot. I know, I know, I was thinking the same thing. Since when do robots need a gender? We all know that Hollywood is obsessed with heterosexual love stories. It would be too scandalous for a movie to show us a toaster in love with a fridge without stressing that they have different hardware. Let's take a closer look at how Pixar chooses to construct their heterosexual robots (Wall-E as male and Eve as female). This week we're asking ourselves:

Does this film break traditional Hollywood portrayals of gender or reinforce them?

It breaks them.
In Wall-E, it is the male who is irrational. Traditionally, Hollywood films show women overcome with emotion but it is Wall-E who makes impulsive decisions for the sake of love. While Eve, the physically stronger of the two, makes rational choices to complete her mission. She's a calm, composed, and fast thinker who takes action when they're in trouble. Eve may be smooth and sleek but she's broad-shouldered and has a gun for a hand -two features that Hollywood usually reserves for males. Eve is never trapped and in need of rescue like a traditional Hollywood action movie where females are typically victims.

It reinforces them.
It's a traditional choice to put the male, in this case Wall-E, at the center (and as the title) of the film. Why do we like Wall-E? Because he's clumsy and rolls around in garbage while Eve's body is clean, sleek, and graceful. This recalls gender rolls from the a 19th century poem where boys are made of "snips and snails and puppy dog tails" and girls are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice". In the end, Eve surrenders to Wall-E's love. She has to change to accommodate him which reinforces the traditional Hollywood perspective that females have to compromise to meet male desire.

I think.
It's great for Pixar to push the gender envelope but it's a shame to see that even they have mainstream limits. Is our culture so homophobic that even our fictional, futuristic, genital-free robots are heterosexual? They score points for broadening Hollywood horizons but, considering we're talking about robots, they could have done a lot more than reinforce the idea of hetero-dominance in the distant future. Read some LeGuin, Pixar.

What do you think?

You might also enjoy Kate Bornstein's excellent analysis.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Reflections on the National Debate

I tried to peer pressure my friends into watching the federal debate by insisting it was their civic duty. I think we'd all like to see a candidate who didn't speak in exaggerated attacks, vague promises, and attempts at coining phrases. It didn't happen this year. Nonetheless, these chumps are the future of Canadian politics.

The most embarrassing part: The discussion about Arts funding. All of the candidates turned this into an awkward "slice of life" answer in which they professed their love of 'culture' and how their kids play clarinet or some shit. I was interested in what specific programs that Harper had cut and why everyone thought that they were worth funding. No one spoke in specifics.

Runnerup embarassment: The sadass at the end who asked: "I haven't voted for ten years, I don't think it matters, why should I vote?" I would have supported any candidate who answered: "wake the fuck up".

Two questions we wanted to ask:

1) Give some respect. What's one idea that one of the other parties created that you wish you had thought of? Don't spin it to take credit.

2) As a voter I know that I'm choosing a government that will have to respond to hundreds of unforeseen issues over the next four years. What guiding principals of your party set you apart from the others?

My review of the candidates:

Voted most likely to be stuffed in a locker. He seems weak, nervous, and verging on insincere. The accent is an unfortunate drawback but his soft tone doesn't help. I found myself tuning him out. I haven't seen any of the hate-ads that try to brand him as an elite academic. I find watching him does that. This was tough for me since I usually choose between the Liberals and NDP. They're Canada's most reasonable party but they seem to be focusing on garnering immediate votes (their switch to environmental concerns) than proposing a unique Liberal vision.

My favourite. Duceppe seems more wild and less polished. And those eyes? He's a living caricature. It's like a cross between a puffer fish, an owl, and a love of Quebec. It's neat to have someone in the debate who can't actually become the PM. I think the sovereignty issue would ruin our friendship. My brother commented that he seems like a veteran who can draw on an extensive history (I was interested in his allegiance to the "manufacturing sector") His hair could stop a bullet.

Voted most likely to conceal a hidden agenda. Unshakable. I think Harper plays politics with a real understanding that it is a performance and that he can't wait to get back to real business -away form cameras. He seems reasonable to me but he's also a privileged white male with different social values. I don't want him to have any more power in Parliament. It was funny how he didn't defend the multiple accusations that his party hasn't revealed a platform. Had he been in power in '03, would this man have partnered with the US and sent troops to Iraq? I think the answer is yes.

Came across as intelligent and prepared -her inclusion was a major victory. However, I despise the thoughtless obsession that my generation is developing for the environment (because I think it's a modern echo of Christian apocalyptic mythology). The Green Party is going to capitalize on this. I've always thought their social views are too far right from my own but they keep them shrouded in mystery. May, to her credit, was the most willing to bring up historical and international context (such as the effect of NAFTA's Chapter 11 suits on Canadian Public Health Care)

Voted most likely to appear at your house and have dinner with your family. Layton played 'the man on the street image' so hard we thought he was going to promise to walk our dog. I want to lean toward the NDP but he was overplaying the 'attack Harper' card. Easy for a small opposition party to promise the world.


I think Harper is going to return as a minority PM. I'd like to see him face a larger NDP component. That would make him angry. I'm not comfortable with a Harper majority able to lock in some sweeping reforms that he hasn't mentioned.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Human Highlights - Team Litter

I shared a nice moment with a stranger on a subway.

There was an empty plastic Coca-Cola bottle rattling and rolling on the floor. It rolled toward me and I stopped it with my foot. But I did it in the coolest way possible. I didn't even look at it. I was reading a book (The Reason Why) and I saw it in my peripheral vision. I simply raised my foot to pin it against the floor. I held it there, planning to throw it in the recycle when I got off. Then, five stops later, some other guy picked up the bottle from beneath my foot. "Nice catch." He smiled.

I pick up litter when it's convenient. If I know there's a garbage between me and my destination then I pick it up. Otherwise, I don't sweat it because other travelers will be thinking the same way. I like imagining that I'm on the same team as these strangers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

try not to die or you lose all your weapons

When we were younger and I was starting the study of history my brother asked me the two great historical questions.
1) Why didn't all of the slaves revolt (specifically in the Southern US)?

2) Why did so many soldiers volunteer to fight in war (specifically the European Wars)?

I know the common answers.
1) Why didn't all of the slaves revolt (specifically in the Southern US)?
-most people cannot move against the current of their culture
-slaves did revolt in small pockets, lacking the resources to unite their struggles

2) Why did so many soldiers volunteer to fight in war (specifically the European Wars)?
-Romantic perceptions of war

I still don't find them satisfactory.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I Lack Depth? Three Levels of Analysis

When I teach, I'm constantly experimenting with new approaches. Occasionally, I surprise myself with something that really works. In a literature class, a student asked me a very straightforward question:
"what do teachers mean when they say that my essay needs 'more depth'?
Usually, 'your essay needs more depth' is a euphemism that teachers use for 'you didn't read the book'. But this student knew the material very well and it was clear that they were looking for a definition of 'depth'. My answer led to this simple and powerful thinking tool. The "three levels of analysis" approach to reading.

Level 1 - The Story
Level 2 - The Author
Level 3 - Critical Analysis

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What is the What (33%)

I'm a very severe critic and few books that I read receive a passing grade. Recently, I've been thinking about my harsh review of Dave Eggers' book What is the What. It's hard to accuse the talented Eggers of taking a thoughtless, imperial approach but here I am.

The story is roughly based on Valentino Achak Deng's life and provides Western readers a way to learn about Sudan without reading Wikipedia. I find it hilarious (in a sad way) that both Eggers and Deng are clearly used to explaining that the book is not about 'Darfur'. My great great grand, Darfur is a region in Sudan where the media lets us know that there is authentic African "ethnic conflict" and "genocide". It is a catchphrase amoung wealthy white people who seek to create meaning in their own lives by toying with the idea of being the saviour of a distant, exotic 'other'. At one point in their life every wealthy white person imagines traveling to a far off land to save the Wretched of the Earth. This is an echo from the age of imperialism when Europeans cast themselves in a morality play as the rescuers of inferior Africans.

There's nothing wrong with caring about strangers but do we have to play make believe? Let's take a look at how What is the What was created.

The book is based on interviews with Deng combined with Eggers' research about the Lost Boys. It's a tough sell since it's a fictionlized memoir. Eggers constructs a character but keeps Deng's real name. What? Why not simply write a truthful biography? Well, in the introduction, Deng claims they turned to fiction because he couldn't faithfully reconstruct his childhood conversations. Smoke and mirrors. Don't trust Deng, he'll say anything to get you to donate to his fund and raise awareness about the plight of his loved ones in Sudan.

And rightfully so. There's something f*cked up going on here. The fact is, Deng's real story wasn't tragic enough. There's a real undercurrent in this novel that Eggers and Deng are selling tragedy. The more horrendous the better. The story is about Deng's difficult life. He experienced terrible things as an adult and as a child. But what's more tragic than him having to watch a childhood friend being eaten by a lion? What if it happens two or three times? The book becomes a sensational highlight reel.
"Sometimes I’d [Eggers] read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war, and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them." (see interview)
I think there's a more interesting story about how someone who survives an experience that is clearly traumatic and tragic would have to dress it up to sell it. I'm surprised Eggers wasn't tuned to that frequency. The book sacrifices sincerity for sensationalism. In the end, it encourages us to play imperialist make believe by encouraging us to gawk at tragedy.

*I was moved by the scene with Noriaki Takada's family.