Friday, November 25, 2011

Ken Jennings on the Future of Trivia

After winning 74 straight on Jeopardy! and taking home his two-and-a-half million, Ken Jennings could have easily dashed off a quickie memoir, while the story was still hot, and collected some hefty earnings all over again. Instead, he went deep not just into his memory, but into trivia's own history, and then, journalistically, into trivia's living present. He alternates between the three strands to weave the collective story of how trivia evolved, as both pastime and entertainment; how the questions get written and the games made and the shows produced; and, of course, how he, Ken Jennings, made off with his big score. 

The book has a thesis, and the thesis is that trivia knowledge is not necessarily trivial. The thesis is that no one who acquires so much conventionally useless knowledge does so because of a lack of curiosity about the world and what's in it, but because of curiosity's abundance. 

That's why trivia best rewards those whose curiosity goes broad rather than deep. It rewards the generalist over the specialist. To excel at specialty trivia requires of an esoteric, particle-level understanding of the subject at hand that makes a game more challenging than enjoyable. I learned this over the last two years as I struggled to keep myself and others engaged by Trivial Pursuit questions of absurd difficulty in both the Beatles and SNL editions (the game-pieces for the latter of which are pictured below). It's the great organizing purpose of Jennings' book to let us know that trivia, if it's to be anything other than an anemic little parlor trick, has to be broad and hungry and cosmopolitan. There are two ways we can go with this: 
Maybe the trivialization of America will produce a rising generation of bright, curious, culturally literate citizens, conversant in every subject of learning under the sun, and trivia will thereby save the world. Or maybe it will just produce more couch potatoes full of ironic hipster regard for crappy old TV, and obsessed with niggling sports statistics and the detail-filled "bonus features" on their DVDs. Time will tell. But in either case, trivia is here to stay. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nike Air Huarache (Running) Due for a Comeback

They were the first running shoe I ever urgently coveted, and they're also the last. They were taken off the market after my first year of cross-country running, in the early 1990s as a sophomore in high school, and they've been gone ever since. 

Actually they did come back, briefly and once, in 2000. I was in the Navy by then, in San Diego, and I must have covered the entire southern coast of California in those shoes that summer. There's never been anything like them. They fit like a literal glove, with that sock-like upper that conformed, slipper-like, to your foot. They did this without sacrificing anything in stability, in either the bottom of the foot or the heel, where there was that strap wrapped from midfoot to up around the Achilles.

They were lightweight and aesthetically idiosyncratic. They were also atavistic as hell, in their conception and design, while also taking advantage of what modern shoe technology had wrought. Their very name says it all--Huarache, from the Mexican sandal. With all the wisdom-of-the-ancients fervor that's recently been inspired by the Born to Run movement, you'd think the shoes might be primed for a comeback. Maybe they are. They certainly should be.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Barbasol Just Got a Whole Lot Cooler

I've long been a user of Barbasol precisely because of the way it constricts choices--or, rather, because of the way it renders choices unnecessary. They were the first to develop a foam that leaves its container as foam--a foam that does not need to be lathered before it assumes its desired properties. Just that knowledge, combined with their simple-elegant barber-pole-striped design, has made Barbasol the easiest, most natural (and most cost-effective) option to reach for in the aisles. Sometimes I switch it up from the original, and go for the Lemon-Lime, but beyond that, it's basic Barbasol for me. So when I saw that they'd released this new Arctic Chill variety, I didn't know what to think, exactly. I tended to think it was merely a gimmick, but, being a sucker for all things polar-themed, it was a gimmick I wanted in on, even if from the sucker's angle. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the Arctic Chill actually did what an optimist might have expected it to do all along. The unimprovable formula had just improved itself. When I was done with my shave, braced for the burn, I got to wondering where all the heat was. But the heat had gone off to chill in the Arctic, where Barbasol put the freeze to it. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mingus Mellowed Out, on Piano

This album sounds like what its title tells you it is: the composer at play on his keyboard, tinkle-trinkle, virtuoso creator of music Wagnerian in scope and intensity just sitting down here to one of his favored secondary instruments. The songs are facile but never frivolous, clean and deep in their cut. Those fingers strengthened for the benefit of bass-playing don't go wasted here. Mingus Plays Piano (1963) leads with the song from which Gene Santoro got the name for his splendid biography: "Myself When I am Real." It's the first song, and it's also one of the ones on here composed by Mingus himself. That's no coincidence, and it's no lie, either.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why You Should Avoid the Bowling Lanes at Kings (Boston)

The bowling lanes at Kings in Back Bay Boston, near Copley, are terrific, as long as you don't intend to use them for, you know, bowling. That's not what they're designed for, after all. They're designed to facilitate the sale of over-priced drinks, and in that, at least, I wish them continued success. They have nice tables and chairs, so there's that, and good music, and glowing pins and gutters in the darkness. But I could have done without the large screens overhead on which a gang of putative grown men argued about the merits of athletes about of third of their ages. At least the sound was off, on those guys. 

That still left the problem of the lanes themselves, and, believe me, they could not have been worse. I didn't know bowling ever got this bad. The sensors often didn't even score the right number of pins, and, really, after that, does anything else even matter? But there was more. There was the bowler's surface, which allowed for no slide whatsoever, and sent a bowler tripping forward even after he knew what to expect. There was also the ball-return rack, too close by at least half to the lanes it bisected, and too far up near the lanes themselves. God forbid someone wants to do something crazy, like knock down a 2, 4, or 7 pin, or--who knows?--maybe even all three at once. In attempting to do so, I actually banged the bony part of my heel, hard, on the steel rack when I kicked up upon delivery. How is that even possible? I didn't do it again, but that's only because I made the necessary adjustments. My score suffered, of course, but at least I didn't sacrifice my feet.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Some of the Secrets Inside of 'Body Double'

It's an established part of the Star Wars legend that when George Lucas showed a rough cut of the original movie to some of his Hollywood friends--this was before the special effects had even been inserted in some crucial places--Brian De Palma was merciless with the ridicule he expressed, sheer laughter right there in Lucas's face. I've never seen exactly what De Palma saw that night--hopefully I never will--but whatever it is, it couldn't have been any worse than Body Double, if in entirely different ways. 

As for Body Double--I don't know why I've never seen it till now; I'm just glad I finally did. It does for (or to) Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo what Body Heat did for (or to) Wilder's Double Indemnity. (And why did both these '80s homages have to begin with the word body? It's one of those mysteries, I guess.) But I'm glad I saw it, because I liked it. I'm not going to claim that I liked it beyond the criteria of camp, because I didn't, but I really dug the cheesy porn scene set to the performance of the '80s anthem "Relax," and I dug the famous power-drill scene (you've never seen blood come through a celing like that), and I dug all the shamelessly overt Hitchcock references, and I dug the quintessential Melanie Griffith performance from before such a thing had been established, and I dug the proto-Boogie Nights scene of a porn star hiding his money shot where the camera couldn't possibly see it and thereby exasperating his directors, and I dug, perhaps more than any of it, the glorious views we get--interior and exterior alike--of that strange and beautiful and haunted L.A. home, the Chemosphere. A murder had taken place there, just eight years before the movie's release, but like Body Double itself, the crimes perpetrated on its grounds can only enhance its strange dark beauty. 

Somewhere, George Lucas must have been laughing, but he must have known that Brian De Palma was laughing right along with him.