Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

[The other day I came across this unfinished humor novel I wrote when I was sixteen. I hadn’t looked at it for over a decade. Parts of it are funny. Most of it is stupid.  What follows are a few of the highlights–I left out the really lame bits. For background: it was intended as a satire of spy/thriller  stories, as well as poking fun at my favorite target, government bureaucracies. Teen-aged me was an ardent libertarian, so take all of it with a generous helping of salt. Also don’t miss my juvenile attempt at Gilbertian wordplay at the end. Enjoy!–BG]

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Reading of this story out loud is strictly prohibited.

(more…)

For the last five years, I’ve been in a friendly fantasy football league. Fantasy football works like this: you have a team of a few players–my league’s format is 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1  tight end, 1 kicker and 1 defense. Each week, players at those positions accrue points for what they do in the real-life NFL games.  My league is head-to-head, so my goal is for my players to score more combined points than the team I’m matched up against each week.

It’s a lot of fun.  It’s mostly luck, but there is a little skill involved–or at least, I’ll claim there is, because I won my league a few years ago, and it’s more fun to brag if I can say it was because I am a football expert.

So, I started thinking: for what other activities could you make up this sort of game? And I ultimately settled on movies.

Like many people, I like to imagine my “dream all-star cast” for movies. But anyone can do that. Fantasy film-making needs to have an element of strategy and resource management.  So, I came up with some rules.

The format of the Fantasy Movie Cast/Crew is as follows:

  • 1 Director
  • 1 Lead Actor
  • 1 Lead Actress
  • 1 Supporting Actor
  • 1 Supporting Actress
  • 1 Screenwriter
  • 1 Cinematographer
  • 1 Composer

Yes, I realize it takes a lot more people to make a movie, but as with Fantasy sports, there have to be some constraints.

Another constraint: you are only allowed to have two Academy Award-nominees per “team”.  That is what brings out the strategic element–it forces players to prioritize where they want the proven talent.  That’s not to say only Academy Award nominees are any good, but again, as with fantasy sports, you have to know how to find under-valued talent to succeed.

Also, you can’t cheat and use one nominee in multiple slots–no written by/directed by/starring the same person.

Finally, the selection is limited to living people–so no building All-Time teams with Stanley Kubrick directing Peter O’Toole or something.

So, here’s my team:

Director: Mike Leigh. Using one of my two Oscar slots right off the bat.  I figured having an established presence at the helm would be important. He also has experience directing in theater as well as film, and I think that versatility would be useful.

Others I considered: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Rian Johnson.

Lead Actor:  Roger Guenveur Smith. This is what I mean about under-valued talent.  I have seen Smith perform live in his one-man show Juan and John, and he is a marvelous actor. Why isn’t he more widely known?  Beats me.  He is excellent at cycling through a huge range of emotions, and can create all different kinds of characters–often in the space of a few minutes.  He also has a distinctive voice and memorable presence.

Others I considered: Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Fiennes

Lead Actress: Natalie Portman. Yeah, yeah; long-time readers probably knew I would pick her the minute they read the description of the game.  Well, she’s a great actress with a wide range, and a particular knack for dark or tragic roles.  Besides which, for a movie to succeed, it helps to have at least one big-name lead.

Others I considered: Rachel Weisz, Sigourney Weaver, Felicia Day

Supporting Actor: Stephen Colbert. People know him mainly as a talk-show host, but he does have a background in acting, which you could see sometimes on The Colbert Report when he would really dial up the crazy.  I read once that he said he always wanted to play Richard in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Just the fact that he said that earns him some acting credit, in my book.

Others I considered: Jeff Lewis, Hugh Laurie

Supporting Actress: Sara Kestelman. Like Smith, I first heard of Kestelman when she was voice acting in the game Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, I’ve seen her perform in all sorts of things.  But it’s still her KotOR II role that best showcases what a terrific actress she is. While the writing is terrific, I think  Kestelman’s acting also made Kreia into one of the greatest characters in gaming history.

Others I considered: Rashida Jones, Tina Fey

Screenwriter: Anthony Tambakis. His work on Jane Got a Gun and his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls impressed me enough to take a chance on someone with a relatively small body of work.

Others I considered: None. There aren’t too many active screenwriters whose work I like.

Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin. I’ve only seen one movie on which he served as cinematographer: The Brothers Bloom. But it had something I really, really liked: color. Not just muted greens and greys and browns, but honest-to-goodness colors. This has fallen out of fashion for some reason, and it’s annoying. So, on the basis of his willingness to accommodate the full spectrum of colors, I choose him.

Others I considered: Dick Pope.

Composer: Lisa Gerrard. Another talent I first discovered in Jane Got a Gun. Since then, I’ve heard her work in the band Dead Can Dance, and I was hooked.

Others I considered: Clint Mansell

As for what the movie would be about–well, we can sort those details out later! That’s how the big studio producers do it, after all. As for scoring and head-to-head competitions, those also can be determined later.

How would you build your ideal movie cast and crew?

[Inspired by (but not exactly a parody of) Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song, which is itself a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” song.]

Since the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL in ’99
The quarterbacks who’ve played for them form a very long depressing line–
There was a lot of optimism (I myself can vouch for it)
When the Brownies first came back into town and got Tim Couch for it.
Ty Detmer was a back-up that they had hired just to mentor him,
And Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn, they both sometimes went in for him.
Kelly Holcomb got the job, then Garcia, Dilfer, and McCown
And before you knew it, Akron’s Charlie Frye was the newest Cleveland Brown.

But Charlie Frye was out and in his stead was Derek Anderson
Who briefly held off second-stringer Brady Quinn (Ohio’s native son.)
Both Bruce Gradkowski and Ken Doresy brief QB careers did enjoy
And then the job came down to either Jake Delhomme or Colt McCoy.
Wallace, Weeden and Thaddeus Lewis, they all came and went as well,
And then the starting job to veteran Jason Campbell fell.
But Campbell might as well have left his luggage packed up in the foyer
For soon, the Cleveland quarterback was a chap called Brian Hoyer.

Brian Hoyer didn’t last, and soon the Browns fans began to call
For the gridiron magician who was known as “Johnny Football”
But what worked at A&M doesn’t really work beside the lake–
And after starting Connor Shaw, the Browns admitted their mistake.
Josh McCown was signed, but he didn’t play for them for very long,
And Davis, RG III and Kessler form the coda of this song.
Kizer’s next to be the starter–a rookie out of Notre Dame,
And now we’ll sit and wait to find out who’s in after next week’s game!

[Note: the order reflects my prediction for each team’s standing in the division at the end of the season.]

AFC East

Patriots
Will Tom get his sixth?
They’re loaded like in ‘seven–
It ends the same way.

Dolphins
They’re not a bad team.
But they’re still just waiting on
Brady’s retirement.

Bills
Rebuilding again.
Could be good in a few years.
We’ve heard that before.

 Jets
Usually they’re good
When they’re expected to stink.
But this time, they’ll stink.

AFC North

Ravens
I’m not giving up
On my belief in Flacco.
They win division.

Steelers
Big Ben will get hurt.
Without him, their offense tanks;
And defense is weak.

Browns
Believe it or not
They might be decent this year.
But still no playoffs.

Bengals
Finishing last place
Might get Coach Lewis fired.
But not a sure thing.

AFC South

Colts
It takes more than Luck
To build a consistent team–
Also needs some linemen.

Titans
Mariota is good
But Murray will get injured
And still no playoffs.

Jaguars
They will be awful.
That is, really, really bad–
As in, not too good.

Texans
Watson disappoints,
And a regressing defense
Causes a meltdown.

AFC West

Chargers
Last ride for Rivers?
Their injury luck changes
And they become good.

Broncos
Two seasons ago
Nationwide was on their side.
Life comes at you fast.

Chiefs
Alex Smith is like
Football’s Rodney Dangerfield–
No respect at all.

Raiders
Beast Mode will Bust Mode.
Lame-duck seasons aren’t pretty–
They will fall apart.

NFC East

Cowboys
Prescott is for real.
Behind powerful o-line
They win Super Bowl.

Redskins
Cousins will be great,
And management will be bad.
Will be wild card.

Giants
Still mediocre–
As they’ve been for a decade;
Save two playoff runs.

Eagles
Wonder where winning
Wentz went–he’ll regress this year.
Back to the cellar.

NFC North

Packers
Will better defense
Yield better playoff results?
No-lose title game.

Vikings
Won’t miss Peterson.
But they will miss Brdgewater
And the postseason.

Bears
Quarterback nightmare
Is the most Bears thing ever–
But without defense.

Lions
Stafford’s luck runs out.
Last year was just a mirage;
Meet reality.

NFC South

Panthers
Superman returns!
Cam Newton will lead a run
To division crown.

Buccaneers
They are the new Saints–
Fun offense, lousy defense.
8 and 8 finish.

Saints
Drew Brees’s last year;
Ends a great career on a
Real depressing note.

Falcons
A collapse like theirs
Is bound to cause hangover.
Foregone conclusion.

NFC West

Seahawks
Wilson is awesome.
But their window is closing–
Can’t beat the Cowboys.

49ers
They must be wishing
They could bring Jim Harbaugh back.
“Don’t know what you’ve got…”

Rams
Would have been awesome
Playing in the ’70s–
But now, not so much.

Cardinals
Palmer, Fitz are old–
Without a solid QB
Offense falls apart.

Ok… check this out.

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[link removed because duh]

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This seems to be from a series of decidedly “adult” spam comments that I received lately.  But what’s up with that list at the end? It strikes me as a bunch of search terms strung together.

But that’s not near as good as what came next:

“You’re so cool! I dont suppose I’ve learned anything like this before.”

Now, this may not seem particularly funny… but the “name” of the “commenter” was “best psychic medium”.

Even better, then we have:

“Many thanks, I have been searching for info regarding this
subject matter for a long time and yours is the greatest I have discovered so
far.”

That’s from “free psychic call now”.  You wouldn’t have thought it would take psychics this long to stuff something out.

I was worried the psychics might get upset that I’m making fun of them, but then I realized they already knew I was planning to, so they must be ok with it.

So I started reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. But before I even got to the poem itself, there was this:

“The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of it self, to all judicious eares, triveal and of no true musical delight: which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.” [All the typos are in the Wikisource text, and I assume are as found in some original.  I think they are due to the fact that English spelling had not yet been standardized.]

Clearly, Milton was not a fan of rhyming. Or rimeing.

I think it’s sort of funny that he started out his Biblical epic by kvetching about rhyme and meter. I like to imagine that some poor sap saw a draft of Paradise Lost and asked, “Why doesn’t it rhyme?” And it set Milton off.

I particularly enjoy the “It may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers” bit. That’s brilliant!  I think I’m going to put a disclaimer at the start of all my writing from now on: “Readers, if you don’t like this, it means you’re stupid. It’s a work of genius.”

Paradise Lost may be a great poem, but I think it’s fair to say English rhyme is still going strong in spite of Milton’s objections.