SHORT RANTS THIRTEEN

THE OSCARS, MISS AMERICA AND THE PULITZER PRIZE

Some people seem to think Hollywood is snubbing Michael Moore and Mel Gibson.

Point number one, Steven Spielberg made a half dozen hugely successful movies before he ever got nominated.

Point number two, just because there's voting involved doesn't mean Hollywood is a democracy. It's an oligarchy. Directors vote for directors. There are only a couple hundred director votes available. Half of those guys are going to be Jews and therefore just not all that interested in a movie about Jesus. And lets face it, Gibson wasn't making this movie to sell to that demographic.

Compare the Oscars to the Miss America pageant. There's voting, but the democratic boundaries are narrowly defined. If you look at a typical panel of judges, you can assemble a set of conventions which, if violated, will disqualify Miss State from becoming a semifinalist. Miss America and Oscar (and you might as well throw in the Pulitzer Committee because it's a panel representing the literary establishment) reward the least challenging, best expression of the prevailing convention. If you want the legitimacy conferred by a panel of experts, you figure out what the lines are and you don't color outside them.

Miss America is the best example. (People who know me will be surprised to hear that I never miss the Miss America pageant.) The interview portion of the Miss America Pageant is the half-hour of television that reveals the most about our culture. This is the point where the crown can be lost. Miss State might trip on the hem of her evening gown and still advance, but if she says anything unconventional in the interview, she's on her bike. These young ladies got where they are by fitting the mold, by not offending either side of an issue, by embracing issues that nobody dares criticize, by only flipping one-sided coins. Feed the hungry, fine. Stem cell research, too hot to handle. Counseling inner city youth to boost self-esteem, who could be against that? Handing out condoms in High School sex ed classes, hey, where did the pretty lady with the tiara go?

What they say reveals nothing. It's calculated to reveal nothing. The revelations come with what they don't say, what they can't afford to say. If you want to know the mind of Mr. and Mrs. P.T.A. solid citizen, you'll pay attention to that.

For example, if asked a question about the war, one side will say that we are in Iraq due to either the ineptitude or dishonesty of the administration. Another side will say that we must identify our enemies and slaughter them by the bushel and when it comes to attacking people who don't have the means to threaten us, well, better safe than sorry. Miss America can't be caught saying either one of those things. She has to talk about the sacrifice of the brave troops in the field and the necessary support they get from the folks at home.

What about checking the spread of aids through sex education classes that teach abstinence only or with the use of condoms? Uuuuuuhhhhhhh... The children are the future of America. Period. I think politicians must watch a lot of beauty pageants.

Each question contains an issue which, if properly adressed, will end the candidacy. Miss America can be outspoken a year from now. This year she's being hired to serve white bread.

Please don't think that I oppose Oscars, Miss America or any other prize. There's a definite role for this kind of thing. These honors and awards and prizes reveal more truth about us than any university sociology department in the country. It's just not right to make too much of it. Remember that it's all fabric spun from vapor. All this prestige comes from a small group of people who agree that the winner thinks like they do. These industries are under no obligation to reflect values held outside of their group. And they don't.

Know that everybody who wins Oscars, Pageants, Pulitzers and the like have done so by mimicking the sensibilities of a small group of judges. The judges and the winner confirm each others legitimacy. The winner accepting an award accepts the panel's right to judge. And why not? They chose him, therefore they must know what they're doing.

Groups can become important by conferring awards. If important people show up to accept your awards, then in theory some of that importance wears off on you and over time you establish your right to pass judgement on others. In actual fact, your group's only qualification might be that Ray Romano has one of your plaques in his garage.

Look at how many show biz awards there are. Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes, People's Choice, MTV Awards, Grammy's and on and on and on they go.

How many award shows are there for farming? Anybody know? Why not? Maybe it's because food is not as important as TV.

So. Pulitzer. Miss America Crown. Oscar. Grammy. So on. All prestigious. Why? Because the people who win them say they are. (If I win one, it must be good.) Because the people who award them say they are. (If it comes from me, it must be good.) These are small, insular communities who use awards to remind themselves of the rightness of their opinions and to reinforce those sensibilites within that community.

Now that I've written this, I can never accept an award of any kind.

RTJ -- 2/901/2005

HOLLYWOOD PREJUDICE

I had a brief career as an unimportant scientist, but in the handful of years I spent in the lab I very often saw pieces of professional entertainment featuring scientists.

In my life I've met hundreds of biologists, physicists, chemists and so on. Only a couple of them had any plans to take over the world. True, some of them could get a little snippy at times, but even those guys didn't rise to the standard of arch-villain. I can only think of one I would characterize even as a villain.

In the Batman movies half of the bad guys are scientists. Mr. Freeze was a scientist, Poison Ivy was a botonist, the Riddler was a computer scientist. In the Spiderman movies Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin were both scientists. The whole history of film is like this. Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Loveless. Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Jeckel. I cringe whenever I'm watching a movie and into the scene walks a guy in a lab coat. "Gee, wonder if he'll be crazy or evil?"

Scientist has to be the most dangerous occupation in Hollywood. Either you're an evil mad scientist bent on enslaving the world (in which case Batman ends up killing you) or you're a good mad scientist who invents some powerful technology which the evil mad scientist is going to take when he kills you. It must be true because I done seed it on the SciFi channel, but I haven't personally witnessed much of this kind of behavior.

I guess when Italian Americans watch The Sopranos they feel a little like I do. I've heard that real cops don't think much of the accuracy of the portrayal of TV cops and real doctors roll their eyes at medical dramas if they can be persuaded to watch.

When somebody goes into professional entertainment, TV, movies, music, publishing, dance or theatre they must dedicate themselves totally to their art from the age of 18, to a rigorous regimen of education and training to the exclusion of all other human experience. It's a little like entering a priesthood. You become part of an exclusive insular community. Competition within that group is fierce and only the most skilled will ever hope to make a living. An actor or writer or director by the time he reaches his mid 20's and is needing to make a living has only three life experiences: high school, show biz training and a string of menial part-time jobs.

That's his entire life experience. Everything he knows about cops, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and scientists he got from TV writers who have pretty much the same life experience he has. He might as well have grown up on Mars, and his job as an entertainer is to present his narrative realistically. Not going to happen. The requirements for polished skill are so high that the student has no time to waste on reality. As good a movie as "Saving Private Ryan" was, the squad was still comprised of refined versions of the same stereotypes you find in an old John Wayne movie.

A writer emerging from grad school has all the technical skills he will ever need to write the great american novel, but all he can write about with any authority is school. That's all he's ever done. If you wonder why so much of the media is dedicated to stories about actors and writers and publishing and reporters and students, its because 1) everybody's favorite subject is himself and 2) they write what they know.

DIET AND EXERCISE

Still bitching about the media, really. Diet and exercise are two words that are linked in our language, like ham and eggs, burger and fries, drugs an alcohol, shoes and socks, cat and dog, piss and vinegar.

I have noticed that every other day the Network News carries a story about diet, just nagging nagging nagging this week about carbs, last week about sodium, got to have the fish for the oil that reduces cholesterol. Whole grains are good for you this week. The carbs will kill you next week. No no don't eat the tuna and salmon, it's got mercury in it.

Shut. Up.

I've had it with your nagging relentlessly about every little morsel, magnifying every detail, nothing too insignificant to regulate, to scrutinize, to manipulate, to control, to measure, to weigh, to maximize, to minimize. And above all to jabber about as a substitute for real news.

Stories about exercise, however, are much rarer. You get two or three mentions a month, and usually they're very general and vague. They also never recommend much specific and never competitive sports. Often they even warn against exercise that is strenuous. They always toss it off and recommend thirty minutes of mild to moderate exercise, like walking, twice a week. They allways tell you what the minimum is and leave it at that. They're very easygoing and accommodative when it comes to exercise.

Diet, though, is treated with obsessive detail, constant adjustment and frequent contradiction. Even when it was discovered that red wine could be good for you, the Network News obsessed on ascertaining the precise daily dose.

Follow the advice from the newsroom to become mentally neurotic and physically weak. Take all their advice with a grain of sodium.

2/02/2005

THE PRESIDENT'S BUDGET

The President submitted a budget that called for cutting hundreds of millions in farm subsidies, capping the subsidy per farm at $250k a year. A lot of folks around here are pretty nervous about that proposal because it hurts producers of crops that must be produced on a large scale because of thin profit margins--specifically rice, soybeans, corn and cotton. Those are by some amazing coincidence Arkansas' top four crops.

I hope people will forgive me for suspecting the motives of our president, but I wonder if he hasn't undertaken this policy to punish California for voting against him in the last election.

Arkansas isn't the only state on the short end of this stick. All of Dixie is going to be asked to make disproportionate financial sacrifices for the sake of this budget. They'll have no choice but to put unsubsidized acreage into other crops. Right now we get most of our vegetables shipped in from outside and devote most of our delta to row crops. If we have to shift that land to growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, broccoli and other hand-picked vegetables, then California is going to suffer not only from a reduced eastern market for their produce but also from greater competition for migrant labor.

Arkansas produces almost half of the rice eaten in America. Californians consume a lot of rice and soy, more than folks in the south or midwest or northeast (although slightly less than the middle atlantic region and less than Hawaii), so a reduction in acreage planted here would likely result in increased prices on commodities that those folks disproportionately consume.

I'd like to think that a Texan would be above monkeying with the system just out of spite to gouge the folks in California, but then that's what the guys at Enron are accused of doing.

As for Arkansas, we'll probably do just fine with our farms drawn in large or small squares. We really do need to diversify our agriculture anyway, and this might be just the motivation we need. Still, I thought I might give a heads up to the people who'd eventually have to deal with the unintended consequences of the president's big ideas.

2/07/2005

MESSING WITH PEOPLES' MINDS

Once when I was over at Momanems, Dad was parked in front of the TV watching Jeopardy and biting his lip. "Nobody's that smart," he said. "This game is fixed. Nobody knows that much stuff."

So I started calling out some of the answers before the contestants, which is something pretty much anybody can do at home. Not so easy under the lights.

Dad looked at me and he squinted a bit, pinched his eyes into that Boris Yeltzin starfish face he makes. Then he looked back at the TV, keeping the corner of his eye pointed at me, just in case I should give away the code.

"Did you ever notice how many of the clues have words in quotations?" I asked.

"How come he skipped that one? Do you think there might be something to the numbers?"

"The category name maybe gives the players a clue before the question is even asked."

"Let's see, there are ten questions in each row and how many letters in the category name."

So we sat there for a half hour, Dad trying to break the secret code, which he was sure I knew just because I could answer a few of the trivia questions. He probably to this day thinks Jeopardy is a game that tests the players' knowledge of some secret code rather than their broad-based knowledge of trivia. It didn't take much to keep him going, either, just "ah" or "hm" or a nod of the head after one of the questions I missed, as if to say "I should have got that one." After the questions I knew, I just gave a little shrug for him to interpret, "You know I'm not smart enough to know that. You know it's a trick."

MORE MESSING WITH PEOPLES' MINDS

A long long time ago I was working on a project with this guy. Periodically we would take meetings to discuss the progress we had made independently and to coordinate our upcoming work. I guess that he had some kind of staff meetings at his office first thing Tuesday mornings, because at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday my phone would ring and it would be him rescheduling our meeting. It was so regular that I knew to be by the phone at that time for that reason if I had a pending appointment with him.

One Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. the phone rang and I answered, "Hi, David."

There was a long silence. "You want to reschedule our meeting," I said.

Another silence. Then "How did you know it was me?" This was way back in the days before caller I.D., so it seemed like quite a magic trick; but the fact was David never called at any time other than 9:30 a.m. and never for any reason other than to reschedule a meeting. His pattern of behavior was completely transparent to him. To this day he probably thinks I'm some kind of witch.

2/20/2005

THE PRESIDENT WANTS TO SCRAP THE C130 IN HIS NEW BUDGET

I certainly do understand the White House wanting to upgrade the military's airlift, but I am concerned that this is usually the kind of thing that is done in peacetime. Introducing new technology is expensive, and in time of national emergency when our troops are scavenging junkyards to armor their vehicles we might want to consider keeping a tried-and-true airlift system on line for the time being.

The President might be getting some well-intentioned bad advice. Here are some of the expenses and inconveniences his advisers might not be making him aware of.

While the military is actively seeking personnel in the form of reserves, guard units and recent retirees. Some of these guys already know how to fly, service and maintain the C-130. If you switch to the C-5, you have to retrain these guys when you call them up. If you suddenly need more airlift, you no longer have a pool of trained personnel and you no longer have an established system of repair and replacement parts and machines and spare part production.

Switching to bigger planes like the C-5 means you have to either lengthen and strengthen a bunch of runways, or just not land supplies there. So that's another expense and another strategic limitation.

Every new system is going to have mechanical and design problems which will come to the fore in its introductory years. These are going to be expensive and time consuming. They always are.

Bigger planes carrying more stuff rolling down longer runways make more tempting and vulnerable targets.

2/20/2005

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