Sunday, July 29, 2007

Up the Voltage

This may come as shock and surprise, but occasionally I allow the things people say and write to get under my skin. I do my best to "live and let live" (write and let write?), but occasionally that philosophy requires a nonchalant stroll to a quiet back room to barf in disgust at the preposterous things I hear and read.

One trend in particular has reached the boiling point for me of late, and that is the way people casually toss around the word GENIUS, particularly in describing someone that they/we know, à la "My boyfriend is a genius" or "My daughter is a genius."

Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.
- Joe Theismann, Quarterback

Before we go any further, let's be FRIENDS!

"Genius is born, not paid."

Sorry, what I meant to say was, before we go any further let's get a definition of the word GENIUS on the table for reference. From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (emphasis mine):

Genius implies high and peculiar gifts of nature, impelling the mind to certain favorite kinds of mental effort, and producing new combinations of ideas, imagery, etc. Talent supposes general strength of intellect, with a peculiar aptitude for being molded and directed to specific employments and valuable ends and purposes. Genius is connected more or less with the exercise of imagination, and reaches its ends by a kind of intuitive power. Talent depends more on high mental training, and a perfect command of all the faculties, memory, judgment, sagacity, etc. Hence we speak of a genius for poetry, painting. etc., and a talent for business or diplomacy.


Distinguished mental superiority; uncommon intellectual power; especially, superior power of invention or origination of any kind, or of forming new combinations.

Now, because I'm no genius, here's some anecdotal evidence as to what actual geniuses and those that are pretty smart have to say about it:

The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.
- Aristotle

I mean, we obviously have nothing in common. I'm a genius, you're all fucking wankers.
- Martin Hannett (in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE)

Over at Mensa, they are very specific about the kind of people they consider for membership: potential members must score within the top 2% (above the 98th percentile) of any approved standardized intelligence test and, in America at least, pay the $52 a year membership fee. That said, they don't use the word "genius" in any of their literature.

So who is a genius?

I'm sorry to say that your grandfather JUST missed out

Here's more from Catharine Morris Cox's 1926 dissertation on geniuses:

In 1916, Stanford University psychologist Lewis M. Terman, Ph.D., classified an IQ score of 140 or higher as "genius or near genius", a classification that is no longer used. Ironically, one of the first practical applications of IQ tests was to identify children who were mentally handicapped, not gifted. Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who developed The Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale in 1905, which Terman would later revise and use to identify gifted children, was dismayed by this subsequent application of his test. Today, not only have high IQ scores become used to identify children for gifted programs, but in popular parlance have become equated with genius. This is very unfortunate since, as we shall see, the relationship between high IQ scores and genius is not always apparent. In fact, history is full of geniuses who more than likely had ordinary IQs.

It's been said that "a sense of timing is the mark of genius", and if that is even close to true, then the so-called geniuses whose paths have crossed with mine have failed the genius test on that criteria alone.

Does genius fade? Can REAL genius fade? I drank what?

Are you, your boyfriend or your daughter contemplating something so new and heady that it's fair to say the people of Earth have never contemplated it before?

If the noodling in question doesn't fit the GENIUS bill, yet what they're up to is nonetheless pretty compelling, then why not fawn over their TALENT or IMPRESSIVE WORK instead of busting out the G word? Talent is still pretty damn impressive, believe you me, and rarer than you might think.

There's no shame in "only" possessing talent.

In the end, genius is a subjective term; no sure-fire process exists that separates the genius from the enormously talented, and one man's genius is another man's hack. As with pornography, most of us think we know genius when we see it. All I ask is that the next time you're tempted to describe someone as a genius, take a moment and make sure that's REALLY what you mean.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sophistry's Choice

I'm as big a fan of the grand statement or the sweeping generalization as the next person, but lately I've picked up on a journalistic trend that crosses the line from informed objectivity into subjective dark-stabbery.

These statements roughly fit the following equation:

"Without the trailblazing of (X) there would never have been a (Y) or (Z)."
Without The Andy Williams Show, Sly and the Family Stone wouldn't have this pic of themselves.

Here's an example from the otherwise excellent August Vanity Fair article "Sly Stone's Higher Power" written by David Kamp (p.175):

"... his December 1969 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which, with its chanted unison vocals and slap bass, effectively invented 1970's funk–without it, no Parliament Funkadelic, no Ohio Players, no Earth, Wind & Fire..."

I have no issue with the statement about 1970's funk, as Family Stone bassist Larry Graham's new "Thumpin' and Pluckin'" technique marked a sea change in funky rhythm sections. What seems preposterous is the "without that song, no P-Funk, Ohio Players, etc" assertion. There's a huge difference between "influenced by" and "would never have existed without," no?

without Larry Graham, there would have been no Graham Central Station.

Especially when you look at the facts. George Clinton formed The Parliaments in 1956, and his first album as leader of Funkadelic was recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. The Ohio Players were playing under different names as early as 1959. Earth Wind & Fire was founded in 1969.

Even if Kamp was trying to say (as I think he was) that those bands wouldn't have existed as we know them today, his reasoning still has logic and history holes in it.

This summer's Wimbledon saw Roger Federer equal Bjorn Borg's record of winning five consecutive titles. Borg himself was in the stands watching the semis and finals, which gave rise to repeated comments from the announcers along the lines of "without Borg, there would be no Federer." Huh?

This year Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In a pre-game special on Robinson, the host said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), "not only would there be no Barry Bonds without Jackie Robinson, but there wouldn't have been a Rosa Parks either."

we have only Jackie Robinson to blame for this.

I think I can safely say, with no disrespect to Robinson's amazing and hugely important legacy, that if it wasn't him, it would certainly have been someone else. Sure, Larry Doby or whoever else it would have been might not have handled it with the stoicism and grace under pressure that Robinson did, but history (including Ms. Parks' act of definace eight years later) would ultimately have played out in similar fashion.

If you think of it, let me know if you've heard other examples of the "if not for the genius of (X) there never would have been a (Y)" argument.

And you writers out there, let's try and keep the WHAT IF?-style alternate universe hyperbole to a minumum.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dog Ears #3: Watchmen

As it's now been established that I'm a Newsweek reader, I had no idea that Time Magazine had published a list of "the 100 best English-language Novels from 1923-Present" in 2005 until I read the back jacket copy of my newly purchased graphic novel WATCHMEN.

There's a good reason they all look so glum.

WATCHMEN, written by Alan Moore (creator of the underrated V FOR VENDETTA), illustrated/lettered by Dave Gibbons, and originally published in serial form by DC Comics in 1986-87, was the only graphic novel named to the Time 100. I picked it up because Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of ABC's LOST, has dropped the occasional hint that some of the show's inspirations were derived from the apparently hugely influential WATCHMEN. I couldn't resist the challenge to see if I could glean some new insights into my favorite still-running show (where have you gone SAXONDALE!?), and other than a couple of Frank Miller graphic novels I hadn't read any comics since the Marvel-ocentric heyday of my youth.

WHAT IF? was more than a comic, it was a pre-teen mantra.

WATCHMEN quickly overcame my skepticism about its placement on the list (I've now read 24 of the Time 100 and am eager to read one more to get that nice round percentage) and continued my recent trend of reading books that really delivered the goods down the home stretch. As with TCOMC, I was struck by a number of exceptionally written (or just plain fun to read) passages and took note of words that were either unfamiliar or needed a look-up to refresh my memory.

If there seem to be some long quotes for a graphic novel, it bears noting that at the end of each chapter there are a variety of "inserts" in the form of articles, book excerpts, interviews, etc. taken from the world of the Watchmen.

OK, with no further ado...

Chapter 3, Page 31
nepenthes |nəˈpenθēz| noun 1 (also nepenthe) |-θē| poetic/literary, a drug described in Homer's Odyssey as banishing grief or trouble from a person's mind. • any drug or potion bringing welcome forgetfulness. ORIGIN: via Latin from Greek nēpenthēs ‘dispelling pain,’ from nē- ‘not’ + penthos ‘grief.’

The view from the aptly-named restaurant Nepenthe's deck in Big Sur.

Chapter 3, Page 31
The new breed of villains... weren't as much fun to fight. All the cases I ended up investigating during the 50's seemed sordid and depressing and quite often blood-chillingly horrible. I don't know what it was... there just seemed to be a sort of bleak, uneasy feeling in the air. It was as if some essential element of our lives, of all our lives, was vanishing before we knew entirely what it was."

Chapter 9, Page 6

"There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."

Chapter 11, Page 23
... and from the decks above a cheer went up, both gross and black, its stench affronting heaven.

Chapter 11, Page 32
"Oh, and I've heard some interesting new music from Jamaica... a sort of hybrid between electronic music and reggae. It's a fascinating study in the new musical forms generated when a largely pre-technological culture is given access to modern recording techniques without the technological preconceptions that we've allowed to accumulate, limiting our vision. It's called dub music. You'd like it, I'm sure."

Chapter 12, Page 7
tachyon |ˈtakēˌän| noun, Physics, a hypothetical particle that travels faster than light. ORIGIN 1960s: from tachy- [swift] + -on .

Ah, NOW i understand what a tachyon is.

Chapter 12, Page 27

I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end.

"In the end"? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.

This last quote really affected me, in the same way that laying on the beach and staring up at the night sky does.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

ESPN Zones Out

There's a great line in an old KING OF THE HILL episode where Connie stays with the Hills while her parents go to Maui on business. When Hank takes a look at the stack of reading material Connie brings with her, he says "Newsweek? Not in this house."

"Win-GO that Danica Patrick is Hot!"
"Shut up Dale."

Well, even Time reader and ardent sports fan Hank Hill would have to agree with Newsweek's recent evisceration of SportsCenter's "Who's Now" faux bracket-style competition, the latest evidence of ESPN's fall from glory.

"Everything about the segment is so artificial, from concept to execution, that watching it is like chewing Styrofoam."

Sad, but true. The departure from ESPN of longtime, arguably definitive SportsCenter anchor Dan Patrick further highlights the fact that slowly but very surely ESPN's focus has shifted away from cheeky-yet-highbrow sports reporting and killer highlights and inexorably towards populist celebutainment and tabloid pap.

How else to explain 25 year-old actress/Maxim girl Jessica Biel determining who is more "Now": Tiger Woods or Dwayne Wade?

Before we go any further, is there any doubt in anyone's mind that Tiger Woods is gonna "win"? Oh, right, nobody cares, because "Who's Now" is a meaningless and silly title determined by questionable arbiters of the zeitgeist like Biel, the ubiquitous Shaun White, and former Now-boy Keyshawn Johnson.

The guys at the barbershop are always wondering who would win between these two.

Maybe it's unfair to target ESPN for its overreliance on puff pieces, interminable tearjerker and image rehabilitation segments, and New York Post-style blowharding about off-the-field troubles with the law and/or spousal fidelity. Do we (or more to the point, should we) care more about what Brewers ace Ben Sheets' trip to the DL means to the NL Central pennant race or what Pacman Jones is alleged to have done outside a strip club two months ago? Is ESPN tarnishing it's golden goose by focusing so much time and effort on the sordid personal lives of these sports stars, or is it creating and stoking audience demand to find out what these Neanderthals have gotten themselves into this week?

That's an E-6 for ESPN if you're scoring at home... or if you're by yourself.

I guess I remember a time when ESPN doubters were uncomfortable with the perception that SportsCenter anchors like Keith Olbermann, Kenny Mayne and Craig Kilborn were stealing the spotlight away from the games they covered and onto themselves by incorporating their unique brand of humor into the telecasts. Isn't that preferable to both the increasingly interchangeable anchors and the games themselves taking a backseat to the soap-opera of what the athletes' off-field lives and Q ratings are like "Now"?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Word Salad Surgery

I used to love hip-hop, and I still have a great deal of fondness for the decade 1985-1994 when hip-hop albums still ran the gamut from cheeky party music (Slick Rick, Biz Markie (whom we also have to thank for the exclamation "Oh Snap!")) to philosophizin' booty-shakers (Public Enemy, De La Soul) to simply the illest (Paris, Eric B & Rakim). For an already-devoted reader, obsessive music fan, and fledgling writer, that period's liner notes provided a wealth of lyrical inspiration... a new album could take the whole afternoon to listen to properly.

"steadily the melody plays"

People have been frontin' that they're hard and/or down for as long as hip-hop has existed, and though I never (OK, rarely) perpetrated that I was from the mean streets, I did adopt many words into my personal lexicon taken from the lyrics and worldview of my preferred era of hip-hop.

A personal favorite that I still use today (and may or may not earn me snickers behind my back) is "word". Word is such a malleable word, and with the proper inflection it can be used in many situations when belaboring the point just isn't the right call.

Here's a decent definition stitched together from multiple entries at

A versatile declaration, originating (more or less) in hip-hop culture. "Word" has no single meaning, but is used to convey a casual sense of affirmation, acknowledgement, agreement, or to indicate that something has impressed you favorably. "Word" is the shortened form of the phrase: "my word is my bond" which was originated by inmates in U.S. prisons. The longer phrase was shortened to "word is bond" before becoming "word," which is most commonly used. It basically means "truth." Or "to speak the truth." Can also be used as a question, meaning "really?"


I'm down with Cameo, but I prefer dropping the "up"

Word can also be a surprisingly evocative modifier, as these medical terminology uses attest:

word salad : noun : a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases, specifically • (in psychiatry) as a form of speech indicative of advanced schizophrenia. • as a means of bypassing a spam filter for e-mail.

word blindness : noun : less technical term for alexia , or (less accurately) for dyslexia .

word deafness : noun : an inability to identify spoken words, resulting from a brain defect such as Wernicke's aphasia.

Here's one you don't hear often but that I nominate for reconsideration:

wordage: noun : words collectively • quantity or amount of words • verbiage, wordiness

please don't get me this for my birthday

Which of course makes us appreciate the awkward (awkword?) word "wordiness" and makes me start humming Tom Tom Club's oft-sampled 1981 namechecker "Wordy Rappinghood".

You know what I like about blogging? Stream of consciousness writing. Faulkner would have been a helluva blogger.

The list of phrases that word is used in is too long to even consider playing favorites with, but if I must I'd pick "have a word with". Has anything pleasant ever resulted in a conversation that opens with "Can I have a word with you?"

I'm just trying to keep the "Word" in The Word Player. Knowhaimsayin'?

My Grandfather "Big Bill" was a veritable fountain of words to the wise, and one of my favorites was what he called "The Three B's of Public Speaking":

"Be Brief, Baby."

It doesn't get much briefer than "Word".

Monday, July 2, 2007


I have not yet joined the YouTube generation, although I have dipped my toe in the water. I've watched the odd clip recommended to me and used it as a reference tool a couple of times, but overall the hundreds of millions of "short form" clips available for viewing just don't call out to me.

Someday I'll sit down and watch every video The Fixx ever made, but I hope I'm wearing black socks with sandals in my retirement community when I do it.

I copied this artwork in high school art class, poorly

Lately it seems that I'm more and more in the minority when it comes to short form and its newer companion "long form on tiny screen." I declined the V CAST option on my new LG cellphone because I couldn't imagine ever wanting to watch movie trailers, Comedy Central, or... YouTube diversions on my 2" display.

But ho, now the marketing wizards at Apple have introduced the iPhone with its luxurious 3.5" display! Won't the latest YouTube sensations or an entry in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy look nearly twice as good here? Yes, but nearly twice as good as "unwatchably small" still doesn't excite me.

Doesn't it seem to anybody else that we've already rejected the Sony Watchman once before?

"the next big thing" victim #106783

I kid. This isn't a rant against YouTube or the iPhone. I'm not a Luddite, and I believe most of these technological advances are damn cool and extremely valuable in the right context.

I guess I've just been cringing a lot lately at the thought of what this is going to mean to the generation growing up with audio and video streaming into every orifice.

Will they know how to read English as we know it, or will Pidgin Textlish be the preferred form of written communication (presumably employed when one's video messaging function is on the fritz)?

I was shocked to see the full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times announcing "NYTIMES.COM/VIDEO" with this enormous headline:


So The New York Times is trying to compete with YouTube by offering "Exclusive Short Videos On Everything From World Affairs and Scientific Innovations to Weddings and Diversions"???

Even after Mrs. Word Player reminded me that the iPhone campaign frequently uses footage of a user surfing NYTIMES.COM as a selling point I still couldn't shake one question:

With theoretically unlimited bandwidth and storage space, does "all the news that's fit to stream" mean that the Times will be far less picky about what they present as news online than they are in the print edition?

Is "When Words Aren't Enough" a tacit admission by "old media" that they just cannot compete with "new media"?

"All the Vows That's Paid to Post"

Should it bother me that whenever I go to my local library it feels like the vast majority of people are there to use computers and free Wi-Fi or check out free videos and DVDs instead of reading books or periodicals?

Is it laughable or terrifying that the new book Cinema for Managers preaches that "executives learn little from books" and that "high-quality films, though, can offer lessons about problem-solving and teamwork as well as focusing on issues such as globalisation and diversity."

What more convincing sign of the Fall of Western Civilization can you imagine than a multinational CEO making decisions based on multiple viewings of THE TERMINAL?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dog Ears #2: The Count of Monte Cristo

Damn the last 484 pages of TCOMC were sweet.

I'd be lying if I said I were sad to finish the book, as I've spent chunks of the last five months reading it and I have a dent in my chest from propping it up in bed, but it ended with a magnificent and heartbreaking crescendo that I won't soon forget. Overall the most impressive book I've ever read, and Dumas' insights into human nature are still uncomfortably spot-on in 2007.

I enjoyed jotting down unusual or archaic words and particularly incandescent bits of prose from the first two thirds in Dog Ears #1, so I thought I'd complete the process now.

p1024. "Really, my dear count, you seem to throw a sort of magic influence over all in which you are concerned; when listening to you, existence no longer seems reality, but a waking dream."

p1036. "cartouche" |kärˈtoō sh | noun. a carved tablet or drawing representing a scroll with rolled-up ends, used ornamentally or bearing an inscription. • Archaeology an oval or oblong enclosing a group of Egyptian hieroglyphs, typically representing the name and title of a monarch.

"With whom are you going to fight?"
"With Beauchamp."
"Is he one of your friends?"
"Of course; it is always with friends that one fights"

(sad but true...)

p1093 "fruiteress" \Fruit"er*ess\, n. A woman who sells fruit. [1913 Webster]

(hard to believe this essential word has fallen out of favor)

p1095 "pilchard" |ˈpil ch ərd| noun a small, edible, commercially valuable marine fish of the herring family. • Sardinops and other genera, family Clupeidae: several species, including the European Sardina pilchardus. See also sardine.

mmm... crunchy

p1197 "I know the world is a drawing-room, from which we must retreat politely and honestly; that is, with a bow, and all debts of honor paid."

p1204 "nothing induces serious duels so much as a fruitless one."

" someone dead in his house?"
"The general has just blown his brains out," replied Monte Cristo, with great coolness."

(who knew that the phrase "blowing your brains out" has existed for over 160 years?)

p1270 "britska" a long carriage with a calash or movable top, and constructed to afford space for reclining on a journey. Source: W. H. De Puy The People's Cyclopedia (New York: Phillips & Hunt: 1881)

if you're not reclining on your journeys, you're not really journeying

1287 "lazaretto" |ˌlazəˈretō| noun ( pl. -tos) chiefly historical– an isolation hospital for people with infectious diseases, esp. leprosy or plague. • a building (or ship) used for quarantine. • a military or prison hospital.

p1359 "But the excitement had calmed down, and they felt themselves obliged to descend from dreams to reality; after having exhausted the ideal, they found they must talk of the actual."

(I think we've all been there... every rush must eventually be slowed, right?)

p1424 "... who immediately entered into conversation with two or three of those industrious idlers, who are always to be found in Rome at the doors of banking-houses, churches, museums, or theatres."

(I just love the idea of the "industrious idler"... could be to the 'aughts what the term "slacker" was to the '90s)

p1435 "As I was saying last night, they intend me to be ransomed. Holla! here is my watch! Let me see what time it is."

(and I thought "blowing your brains out" seemed anachronistic!)

And finally, my favorite sentiment in the book. Those who haven't already read TCOMC may want to click away now, as these lines represent (IMHO) the culmination of the entire experience and journey of the book...

a view from a cell in the actual Chateau d'If (where Edmond spent 14 long years)

p1461 "There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, Morrel, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life."

Truer words have never been written.