Thursday, May 31, 2007


Is it just me, or are those two mailboxes talking about me?



Iced coffee wars, continued

Is this good advertizing by Dunkin' Donuts? What's so appealing about iced coffee splashing out of the cup?


Inside the store: See what I mean?


Monday, May 28, 2007


Can't quite put my finger on the irony here

Other than an extremely painful procedure, the most unpleasant thing about medical appointments, as far as I'm concerned, is the waiting. You sit there with nothing to take your mind off of the anxieties -- that you'll get bad news, that the procedure will be extremely painful -- other than the most irritating assortment of magazines known to humanity.

If hell is something affirmatively nasty, then purgatory is a waiting room with flourescent lights and bad magazines.

Which is why "Dr. Wait" is second only to "Dr. Pain" as an unfortunate name for a medical professional.


If you were "Doctor Wait," wouldn't you try real hard to find another way to phrase this idea?


Friday, May 25, 2007


Check, please!

I don't see that many movies, so I really ought to choose them more carefully than by simply relying on second-hand reports that "it got really good reviews."

What, really, is all the fuss about Waitress? Written and directed by (and co-starring) Adrienne Shelley, the movie retells a now hackneyed story. Jenna (Keri Russell) is a waitress in a small southern town where she and her unearthly talent for creating new pies are squashed under the thumb of her domineering and unkissable brute of a husband. The movie opens with Jenna learning she is pregnant ("It must have been that one night six weeks ago when Earl got me drunk!") and therefore even more hopelessly trapped in her depressing situation. After a confidence-boosting fling with her OB-GYN instills her with a sense of self worth, Jenna realizes that she can toss her husband simply by telling him. The movie ends as Jenna, having fallen in love with her previously-unwanted new baby, decides to make her way in the world without the aid of men (other than a chance inheritance from the old curmudgeon pie shop owner -- a man).

There is nothing wrong with movies that recycle an old story, but you hope there is some fresh take on it, and Waitress is a very on-the-nose retelling. I think I saw a better version of this one as early as 1974 (Scorsese, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

What passes for Waitress's "fresh take" on the oft-told story is a sort of Pecker-meets-Chocolat thing. Shelley tries to mingle a John Waters visual sensibility -- but only his camp 1950ish production values, without the edge or the shock -- with a foodie magical-realism schtick. But as much as I liked the cleverness of Jenna's running ruminations on new pie creations that tracked her moods and life events, that really didn't rise to the level of new insight into the old feminist morality tale.

The movie would have been unwatchably tedious -- as it is, I looked at my watch about 5 times, starting at 40 minutes in -- but for three things:
1) the satisfaction of seeing that ultra-creepy actor Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") is still being typecast as ultra-creeps;

Jeremy Sisto-4 u101a[1]
Sisto, left. Don't you like him for the biopic of Cat Stevens (right)?

2) seeing that ol' Andy ("Sheriff Taylor"/ "Matlock") Griffith is still alive and capable of playing an adorable geezer;

3) that director Shelley made the most of her greatest asset, giving us tons of closeups of too-beautiful-to-play-the-part actress Keri Russell.

Sorry, I just don't think the pies were that fresh.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007



According to the documentary film Wordplay, crossword puzzle geeks measure their progress by timing how fast they complete the NYTimes crossword. I'm gauging my progress by how deep into the week I fill out the puzzle in pen. The NYT crossword increases in difficult from Monday (easy) to Saturday (hard). (Sunday is easier than Saturday, but much larger and longer.)

I've progressed to confidently using pen on Wednesdays and am inking in Thursdays with some frequency.

Why can you get better at solving crossword puzzles? Largely, I think, because you learn the rules of the game as well as a bunch of tricks and repeat words. Let me explain.

The number one rule of the game is that, contrary to the popular belief of people who don't regularly do them, crossword puzzles are not a test of your "word-a-day calendar" obscure word vocabulary. There are usually no more than two or three obscure words out of the 70 or so clues in a 15-by-15 crossword grid (the size of the weekday puzzles). And usually you can get those words by solving the crisscrossing clues.

Crossword puzzles test your vocabulary in a different sense: it helps to know connotations of words, and their less frequently-used definitions.

On a Monday, for example, the clue for "ink" might be "pen filler," whereas on Wednesday it might be "sign a contract."

The way most puzzle writers increase the degree of difficulty of a puzzle is not by going for more obscure vocabulary, but rather by making the clues more vague. Either you don't know what they're driving at or there are multiple answers that would fit.

A four letter word for "got a move on" could be "went," or "fled" or a few other things, and until you crisscross it and get "h" as the first letter you probably wouldn't think of "hied."

Part of the game of crosswords is learning the special language of clues. A question mark at the end of a clue means that the answer, together with the clue, forms a pun. The word "briefly," means abbreviated, not for a short time in history. Thus, "Visa alternative, briefly" (four letters) is not some credit card company that went out of business, but rather an abbreviation -- AMEX.

Note, by the way, that "Visa" is ambiguous: it could have meant permission to enter a country. It's important not to get "tunnel vision" by focusing on one possible meaning of a clue to the exclusion of others.

You have to pay attention to grammar in clues: clues that are present tense verbs mean that the answer will be a present tense verb, etc. Abbreviations in a clue mean the answer is also an abbreviation.

One of the more annoying bits of crossword puzzle grammar is that they will put "-er" at the end of any verbal noun, generating a grammatically correct but linguistically awkward word. Example: "one who makes it happen faster" might be the clue, and the answer: "hastener." Technically a word, perhaps, but no English-speaker would ever say or write "hastener" in this sense.

And so on.

The other way experienced crossword puzzle solvers improve their technique is by learning the dozens of cheat words. Creating a crossword puzzle is a complex set of problems and it turns out that puzzle-writers find that there are certain recurring letter combinations and therefore, certain "crossword puzzle words" -- usually of three or four letters -- that they rely on to solve puzzle writing issues.

As puzzle solvers, you start to see these repeat words and get to the point where you can sniff them out right away, even though they try to vary the clues. Here are a few:
A long passage of time: "aeon" or "eon" (alternate spellings)

A "sea eagle" or coastal bird: "erne" or "ern"

WWII French city (four letters): "St. Lo" every time... it's never "Caen"

Any ruler, potentate, etc. in the Islamic world is always "emir"

A four-letter woman's name is usually "Enid" (if the clue suggest the middle-ages related clue, like "Wife of Geraint"), or "Elsa" (or "Ilsa," if the clue has Ingrid Bergman or Casablanca in it). A three letter woman's name is usually "Ida," "Eva," or "Eve." Note that the clue might the first name of a female celebrity.

"EULA" = "Falkner character Varner," and also a high-tech form contract ("end users license agreement")
"SSR" or "SSRS" = soviet socialist republic(s) (sometimes "CCCP" as the Russian for "USSR")

"gman" and "tman" = "fed," or "govt agent"

Crossword puzzle writers love the word "email," and a mountain in Greece is usually "Etna."

So it's not exactly some great talent for words so much as it is the grind of learning a new language.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Crazy game

The Mets 10-7 win over the Yankees was indeed a "crazy game," as the announcing crew said in the wrap-up, but the craziness includes the following features that escaped the broadcast.

1. Oscar's mental telepathy, #1: When David Wright came to bat for the second time, after hitting a home run his first time up, I had a sudden, firm conviction that he would have at least one more home run. "Wright's going to hit a home run," I said to B. "But he already did," said B. "No," I said, "another one," at which very moment he hit his second home run.

2. Oscar's mental telepathy, #2: Okay, not so "crazy"? What about this: I'm listening to the Mets radio webcast. While the TV announcers are terrific, the radio announcers are painfully, aggressively bland and boring. I think, "Geez, why don't they hire a woman color commentator just to shake things up a bit?"

I decide to switch to the Yankees broadcast, on the theory being that it will be more entertaining to hear the Yankee homers whining about the fact that they are trailing (at that point) 6-2. Little did I know that, since 2005, the Yankees' radio color commentator has been Suzyn Waldman, the first woman to hold such a job in MLB history.

3. Yanks lose touch with reality: The problem with rooting for the Yankees is that winning starts to seem so normal and ordinary that when the team is lousy, like this season, Yankee fans -- and their broadcasters -- lose touch with reality. The Yankee broadcasters said, "the forecast calls for rain, but so far we haven't had a single drop." Funny thing was that moments earlier, the Mets announcers mentioned that a light rain had been "falling steadily" since the game began and, when I switched back to the Mets broadcast, they again talked about the rain and gave "wet field" as the explanation for why Jose Reyes slipped coming out of the batters box. A quick check at confirmed the Mets' version of the weather.

Whatever, happens in tomorrow's series finale, the Mets have taken this series (winning the first two games), which means Met orange-and-blue lights on the Empire State Building.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Memo from New Jersey: Things that will have to be cleared up before that Newark real estate boom really takes off



Found poetry on New Jersey Transit

You've heard, of course, that N.J. governor, John Corzine, was seriously injured last month when his SUV rolled over. When released from the hospital, he issued a public apology for the fact that he was not wearing his seat belt.

The state trooper chauffering him was going 91 mph. What I hadn't realized was that the Governor was speeding to get to a meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Doesn't it make your head spin? What's the story here:
NJ state cops flout traffic laws?

Gov's tragic error proves wisdom of seat belt laws?

Imus gaffe continues to cause injury throughout society?
Just when I though the ironies couldn't get any better, I saw this sign on NJ Transit during my recent trip to the New York area:


Sunday, May 13, 2007


Movie idea

How's this for a tragicomic buddy-movie idea: Two aging, but still splendid actors find themselves doomed to live out their acting lives reprising their respective late-career blockbuster roles.

Anthony Hopkins as a Hannibal Lectoresque psychotic killer, and Ben Kingsley as a Don Loganish psychopathic gangster killer.*

They get fed up and start preying on producers and studio execs in a macabre killing spree.

On a related note, Kingsley is also being typecast as old Jewish criminals: in the span of less than two years (2005-06), he played the film roles of "Fagin", "Kagan," and "The Rabbi."

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Airport brain

The way I deal with the aggravations of airports these days is to zone out. By an act of quasi-meditative self-zombification I can dull the feelings of anger and indignation at the security screening point and take in stride the barking of contradictory orders from boneheaded TSA employees.

This "airport brain" that allows me to cope emotionally comes at a price. It makes me more stupid, and therefore increases the challenge of multitasking -- for example, removing my jacket, shoes and laptop and placing same into 2-3 cat litterboxes while simultaneously presenting my boarding pass, keeping moving at a brisk pace all the while.

On this last trip to New York, I discovered a pleasant upside to airport brain, however. You can self induce a sort of tipsy buzz that distorts your perception in amusing ways. The ubiquitous pre-recorded announcement
"Most luggage looks the same. Be sure to pick up only your own luggage from the luggage carrousel"
sounded to me like
"Most children look the same. Be sure to pick up only your own children..."
Also, I could have sworn that the airline employee making announcements at the gate used the word "pre-reminder." As in, "This is a pre-reminder to passengers on flight 276 to Newark. All carry-on luggage must be stowed in the overhead compartments or under your seat..."

I probably didn't hear that word, but I love it. It's even better than "have your boarding pass out and available." It is so... so airport.

"Airport brain" is not just me. It's an entire dumbed-down subculture.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


My new mantras*

A colleague of mine recently intervened with me at a critical moment and stopped me from going semi-public with a well-written but probably ill-advised diatribe, using this bit of zen-like wisdom:
"Just because you have a hammer doesn't mean that you have to hit every nail."
Well, he didn't claim that he made it up, and some of you have probably heard that one before. But I hadn't. And, more importantly, it is stunningly true. It's my new mantra. Every day or two, I bring it to mind and refrain from hitting some nail or other.

Here's one that I believe I may have created myself. It was useful for its literal truth on the recent 4-day trip B and I took in New York City, where we were continually catching subways or commuter rail:
"If you're not in a hurry, you don't have to run just because a train is coming."
Pretty good, huh?

*Yes, yes, I know I'm misusing the word "mantra." But I don't care. If it bothers you when someone misuses the word "mantra" to refer to philosophical aphorisms, then you need to go back and keep repeating your mantra until you friggin' chill out.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Even the Queen can't get good help

I just saw The Queen a few days ago, and while I didn’t go gaga over it, I liked it enough, and appreciated Helen Mirren’s portrayal enough, to understand the Best Actress award for Mirren.

Among the things I enjoyed about The Queen are:

1) Learning that the queen is addressed, as explained to Tony Blair by the ryoal director of protocol, as: “ ‘Ma’am’ as in ‘ham’ and not ‘Ma’am’ as in ‘farm’” (an American would never of course pronounce “ma’am” to rhyme with “farm”

2) Learning that upper crust Brits pronounce Tony Blair: “ ‘Blaaaah’ as in ‘bla[b],’ and not Blah as in ‘Blah-blah-blah’ ”

3) Learning enough about the queen to appreciate the context for this story in Sunday’s New York Times:
Helen Mirren has turned down an invitation for dinner with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday in London. The newspaper said the palace was astonished at the rejection by Ms. Mirren, who paid warm tribute to the queen in February when she won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth in “The Queen[.]”... Ms. Mirren, who is before the cameras in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, was quoted as saying: "The Palace very kindly extended an invitation to dinner last Tuesday. But unfortunately I was filming in South Dakota and unable to change my schedule. [“Schedule” as in “shed–jewel”, not “schedule” as in “skedaddle.”] I am very sad not to have been able to attend."

The Mail described royal aides as furious and unlikely to extend another invitation. A senior palace official was quoted as saying: “It is unheard of for Her Majesty to extend a personal invitation to dinner to someone who has portrayed her in a film. We did not expect to be told that the date is unacceptable.”

One of the themes of The Queen was the pathos this basically decent woman having been raised in such a rarified atmosphere that ordinary consideration becomes, to her, a difficult lesson learned late in life.

And here she goes again – extending an invitation that cannot be decently refused, but that can only be accepted if the invitee (Mirren) resigns from her job.

But it’s not the queen – it’s her staff, of course. The other theme of the movie is how fundamentally incompetent boobs are employed as the queen's retinue, in such a rarified atmosphere that they don’t have to learn the A-B-C’s of competent staff work. Any staffer in even a small-city mayor's office knows that you always preclear the schedules of both parties before publicly extending an invitation that cannot in decency be refused.

Sack the staff, I say.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Great moments in crossword puzzle karma

I was sitting on a plane in seat 3B, doing a crossword puzzle while waiting for the boarding process to be completed so we could take off. The man ticketed for the seat in front of me made the following, rather tired joke about his assigned place. Pointing to the empty seat, he asked the man in 2A:
"2B? Or not 2B?"
This flash of wit would not have been blogworthy, but for the fact that at that exact moment, I was reading the following crossword puzzle clue for a four-letter word:
Yorick's skull, e.g.
Pretty wild, huh?

The answer, by the way, is "prop." And we were on a propeller plane.


Sports I don't understand, # 23

How would you like this:

You get the hots for someone, you romance him or her for weeks and weeks, while your desire builds up to a fever pitch as you await the perfect moment for you-know-what. It finally arrives and... it's over in five minutes.

Not so much, huh?

Then why do you like the Kentucky Derby?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Lawsuits, Japanese style

One of the great canards of the lawyer-bashing/ tort reform argument has been the idea that Japan's impressive economic productivity since WWII has resulted in part from the small number of lawyers and lawsuits.

Next time somebody tells you that, lay this one on them, from the "Arts in Brief" news summary in today's NY Times:
Forty-nine Japanese magicians have sued two Japanese television networks for showing viewers the secret behind their coin tricks. The magicians are seeking $16,400 -- and apologies -- from Nippon Television Network and TV Asahi. "There was no need to reveal the secrets of tricks, and the defendants infringed upon the value of secrets of tricks, which are assets shared by magicians," the group of plaintiffs said in the lawsuit filed in Tokyo District Court.
True, the story illustrates that Japanese litigators have a way to go in pressing their clients' cases zealously. Had I been representing the magicians, I'd have demanded that the TV executives appear in court and pay the $16,400 in coins. And the plaintiffs would be allowed to "find" the coins, one-at-a-time, behind the defendants' ears.

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