Literary feedback loop: Same ol’ books, same ol’ movies

March 2, 2009

godfatherFROM JASON’S REDUNDANT HOME LIBRARY — Well, it happened again. I grabbed my battered, old copy of The Godfather on the way to the bathroom a couple of days ago, and before I knew it two hours had passed and I was 120 pages in.

It started when I caught a much-edited showing the Coppola’s film on Bravo — it’s one of those films that is a must-watch if I stumble across it while flipping channels. But the Bravo version didn’t end the right way, with Kay (nee Adams) Corleone praying for Michael’s soul.

The more I saw, the more scenes I missed… either those that were edited, or those that never made the script. It’s perhaps my favorite movie of all time (I waffle between The Godfather and Goodfellas, which is strange because I don’t really care so much about mafia as a subject, just the conspiracy of it all).

But there’s none of Vito Corleone’s rise to power in Coppola’s film. You don’t meet Genco Abandando. Almost all of Johnny Fontaine’s story has been excised (which was supposedly all about Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra hated author Mario Puzo for it). Aside from the first scene, there’s nothing more about Lucy Mancini. You don’t get a whole lot about the wooing and turning of ex-cop Albert Neri.

I love those character studies. They are not the focus of the story. They are not the brain of the story. But they are its heart — all the people Vito has pledged to protect and provide for.

My reading binge didn’t stop there. The Godfather was just the ignition point for a terrible habit. I go through re-reads like fire goes through gasoline. I find myself, year after year, returning to the same cache of old hard-bound friends: The Three Musketeers. Breakfast of Champions. The World According to Garp. Dune, The Belgariad, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 2010, Ender’s Game, Robin Hood.

They are familiar. I worry this habit is just childish, escapist regression. I justify it as stress relief, as returning to familiar works that deserve time and attention on a second or third or forty-third reading.

It’s happening with movies, too. I went through a particular rough patch in my life a few months ago, and ended up watching Fight Club every other night or so for two weeks, just because it was looping on G4 and my emotional malaise turned into apathy.

I rarely hit the video rentals these days (though I just finished watching Oliver Stone’s W.). Instead, I opt to watch the animated 1984 Transformers movie endlessly, or to rehash Lucky Number Slevin for the 20th time, or pop in a random Arrested Development disc.

I’m a little paranoid about the habit, I think, because I’m nearing 30 and starting to wonder whether my choices reflect an overall mental slowdown. I find it less and less appealing to pick up an all-new title with its unknown depths. It’s so much more comfortable to go back to those novels to which you already know the ending as soon as you read page one.

Is this a sign that I’ve reached my mental peak? If I am more and more hesitant to absorb new knowledge, new stories, does that mean my cognitive growth is stagnant? Is that the point where I can consider myself old?

And here I thought the middle age crisis was a psychological myth.

By the way, have you heard of Goodreads.com? It’s a list-keeping service that helps track all the titles you’ve ever read, organizing them into databases that can then be cross-references to find new books you might enjoy. You can share and compare your lists with your friends.

Some of mine include:goodreadsI had been wanting to sit and draw out just such a list for a few years, trying to see just what scope and breadth of literature I’ve read. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, and will continue to flesh out my account as I remember and/or visit the library.

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Word-a-day anger in the American Midwest

January 26, 2009

FROM JASON’S LACK OF IGNORANCE — I am going to rant a little bit about people who are willfully stupid.

A co-worker of mine has been trying to expand his vocabulary by having a word-of-the-day sent straight to his phone, and I give him kudos for the attempt at self-improvement. A couple of weeks ago, though, he decided to see whether I  could define “ossuary” (a repository for skeletal remains), and I could not comprehend why he became so angry when I tossed out the answer in an off-handed way without much thought.

He’s brought me a new word each day since, hoping to stump me and getting more irate each time I give the correct definition. It was not the reaction I expected. Competitive, maybe… but actually furious?

I tried to head off his growing head of steam today after nailing “mimetics,” explaining for the fifth time that I’ve got a BA in English. After all, I’m still paying down on the $68,000 I paid to learn those words, I told him.

It didn’t calm him down.

His attitude is frightening. This is a guy — an adult — who finds affront at the very knowledge he is seeking to gain. I could not grasp his outrage that I would simply hold a piece of information.

I tried soothing him by explaining how I pick apart the roots of the word to discover how the word works, first stripping away prefixes and suffixes and then thinking about the (usually) Latin or Greek at the heart. That didn’t work.

I tried to water it down by telling him that “mimetics” is really close to “mime” and “mimeograph.” That didn’t work either.

This is a man who never seized on the idea that you could actually apply the information Mr. Harrigan taught in seventh-grade English, or that anyone could have enjoyed doing so. He refuses to believe anyone would pay attention all those years ago, or care to keep all that “useless book learnin'” locked away and ready to access.

He cannot see the attractiveness of routinely flipping to the Discovery Channel for a quick documentary on the pyramids at Giza or how coral reefs form, or that such a thing to me is as fun as a beer and a football game.

This is a man for whom learning is torture, something to be avoided unless it comes in the near-painless dose of a text message once a day. I just don’t understand that mindset — anything more is unacceptable. I tried imagining what it would be like to be incurious, and I was horrified.

This is the blatant and god-fearing anti-intellectualism of the American Midwest. People here aren’t afraid of the unknown; they embrace it. They’ve been taught that mysticism is good, that their lord is in heaven and in control, and I’ve observed that that kind of spiritual dependence extinguishes the burning need to know more.

These are people afraid to speak precisely for the fear of being labeled “gay.” They avoid interest for fear of being “nerdy.” They refuse to exercise their minds so their friends don’t see them as “stuck up.”

This is why Paul Blart: Mall Cop is number one in the box office. It is why I weep for the future and pit myself so defiantly against the trusting apathy of theism. It is why I am forming a habit of buying neat books I hope will hook the children my wife and I will someday have.

My mother had a very limited education, but she made a decision early to make sure I had easy access to books about outer space, life under the oceans’ surface, and the peoples of far-away lands. It worked. There but for the grace of Mom go I.


Are you smart? A love for ‘Jeopardy!’ is mandatory

January 7, 2009

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

FROM JASON’S CHANNEL 5 — What is the Chang Jiang River? What is Zorba the Greek? Who was Jose de San Martin? What is the square of the hypotenuse?

I think, looking back, that it’s very possible I learned more from Alex Trebek than any other single teacher through high school. The man shotgunned bullets of information into my head, one every 10 seconds or so, 22 minutes a night, five nights a week, for most of my formative years.

Watching Jeopardy! wasn’t exactly mandatory in my house, but there was rarely a reason good enough to miss it (until I started to notice boobs) or the competition it brought into my living room. Ever since I was able to read, I wanted to soak up information. I pored over the Golden Treasury of Knowledge and  a used Encyclopedia Britannica set found at a yard sale.

Those heavy volumes opened my mind early to how to receive and retain information — so I was ready for Jeopardy!’s perfectly empirical, entirely apolitical, soundbite-sized lessons on everything.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently discovered my friends in England, the Continent, and Australia have never seen Jeopardy!.

This blew my mind. It’s a core part of my education, a nightly ritual, and an infallible father figure (in Trebek, although you could say he’s not perfect because he’s Canadian — that dig is for you, Kevin). This is a show that started in 1964, running continuously in its present format for 25 years come September 2009.

Finally, I found an American product I’m proud to export to the rest of the world.

Now, there are some out there who would insist watching Jeopardy! is a geriatric pastime. That is just not true, and I think it’s based solely on the 7 or 7:30 p.m. time slot in which it runs in most markets. But if you can get past the Geritol and Polydent commercials to the meat of the show, you’ll see that if you are to rank anywhere above “Invertibrate” on the Jason Scale of Relative Intelligence, then you need to love Jeopardy!.

What I like best about the program is it’s pacing. Unlike every other game show ever aired, its success lies in the rapid-fire format, the complete opposite of quiz-the-idiot shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

I never got the feeling that I was actually playing along with Wheel of Fortune because the contestants refused to call the letters I would scream at the television. With Jeopardy!, the contestant’s success is irrelevant; it’s all about whether I get the right answer. And that benchmark can be measured every few seconds.

I also like that it’s a pure meritocracy. You either know the answers or you don’t, and you are awarded dollars based on skill, not blind chance. Three people compete; one of them is the best not because of the spin of a wheel but because they are interested in the world around them.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I have to say we have very different value systems.

So this is my appeal to you, non-American, non-Canadian readers: Be my friend. Prove it by watching the old-ish epidode I’ve posted before. Become a trivia-phile. Love the Trebek like you would love the Shatner. Show me how much you love to learn for learning’s sake. Be awesome.


YesterGames #3: Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

March 6, 2008

FROM JASON’S GLOBE-TROTTING COMPUTER — My biggest fear, the one paranoia that keeps me awake some nights, is that we’re breeding idiots. The only thing keeping hope alive is Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego (download).

In America, we’re very good at certain things. Geography is not one of them. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Geographic Society found half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map and only 37 percent can find Iraq. The Society gave 510 U.S. citizens a weighted geography test and found that youngsters answered about 54 percent of the questions correctly, while most adults ages 18 to 24 failed.

And we’re not just talking about being able to label state capitals, here, folks. My fellow Americans don’t understand much about foreign culture, language, religion or history. Three-quarters of those tested didn’t know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim nation, and the same number thought English is the most-spoken language in the world (it’s actually Mandarin).

The study also found:

  • 75 percent could not find Israel on a map.
  • 44 percent could not find Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.
  • 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map.
  • 54 percent did not know Sudan is in Africa.
  • 40 percent did not know Rwanda is in Africa.
  • 35 percent were able to identify Pakistan as the country where 70,000 people died in an earthquake in October 2005.
  • 67 percent were able to find Louisiana on a U.S. map.
  • 52 percent were able to find Mississippi on a U.S. map.
  • 69 percent found China on a map — and it registered as one of the few recognized countries outside of North America.

Public schools keep churning out geographically and historically illiterates, but I credit software developer Broderbund with doing more to further my knowledge of those subjects than any teacher or class.

The Carmen Sandiego series of computer games was born in 1985 with Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego, which would run on ludicrously slow computers and CGA monitors. It had the advantage of being prevalent in a time when edutainment software still had a viable share of the market, and I remember playing it at school and then begging my parents to buy a copy for home on my 286.

The game is little more than a test to see if you know that Indians speak Hindi, that Tokyo is a world electronics capital, that the Aztecs ruled what is now Mexico, that the Niger River is in Africa, that sherpas can be found in Kathmandu, and that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t quite circumnavigate the globe.

But it’s disguised as a crime caper, allowing you to chase down goofy suspects who’ve stolen impossible maguffins — like the Leaning Tower of Pisa — and gone on the lam. Using clues gathered as you fly around the world, you have to stay on the thief’s trail, get a warrant, and make an arrest.

Sure, there are some softball clues lobbed in there (“She was asking what the exchange rate is on the peso.”) but there are also some brain busters. I played this game for two hours Monday and Tuesday and was hooked the whole time, smiling stupidly to myself as I relived a huge part of my childhood and stretched my brain.

I also couldn’t get the theme song from the Carmen Sandiego game show on PBS out of my head. When I was 11, I watched every afternoon at 5 p.m. and was howling pre-adolescent profanity at the screen because the questions were so easy.

You’ve got to watch this. Full episode ahead:

If you have a student age 8 to 13 (or maybe a little older if they aren’t wusses), I can think of no better learning tool than Where In the Wold Is Carmen Sandiego?. The 1990 deluxe edition can be found at Home of the Underdogs, or if you have the scruples it can still be purchased from Broderbund for $10.

HOTU also has downloads for: