First page – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I *love* this kind of movie open where we start with men at work, and then something out-of-the-ordinary pops up. (See James Cameron’s The Abyss or even United 93 for other examples of men-at-work opens.)

Note that this was originally Scene 40 and they moved it up to the very beginning.  It’s the first thing we see.

Spielberg — he not only directed but also wrote the screenplay — captures the banality of the workplace.  The air traffic controller is “a bit bored,” and his colleague yells at him “mildly.”

Spielberg isn’t afraid to get a little bit technical.  He uses words that the typical reader won’t understand… midwatch, data block, non-beacon target.

And that mention of the non-beacon target.  It’s underlined.  If you want to get technical, this is the inciting incident.  Or — at least — it’s the very start of the inciting incident.  The moment when the status quo — the boredom of a nighttime air traffic control shift — is interrupted by the unexpected.

And no one says a thing.

Spielberg shows us the importance of this blip with the physical movement of three characters:  “Harry peers more intently.  Interphone controller leans over and looks, as does coordinator.”

And the audience wonders, “What the heck are they so curious about?”

He’s already got us, and we’re still on page 1.

Share this post

Three Identical Strangers – an emotionally devastating meditation on Nature vs. Nurture

If you can get past the annoying re-enactments, Three Identical Strangers is a fascinating and emotionally devastating documentary.  On the surface, it’s the story of three triplets separated at birth and reunited in their early 20’s.  But it resonates far and wide.

When I was younger, I very much leaned toward the Nurture side in the Nature vs. Nurture debate.  In college, I remember telling my roommate Marc that I had an aversion to bugs because — when I was a kid — I was trying to catch a grasshopper, and he ended up getting squished between my hands.

Marc’s response was, “Yes, but what were the chances that you were going to encounter a squished bug at some point in your childhood?  Probably close to 100%.  So you were going to end up hating bugs no matter what.  What about somebody who has no aversion to bugs as an adult?  Don’t you think he squished a bug at some point? His reaction to that same experience was different than yours, probably because he has different genes.”

Hmmmm….. That made me think.  It’s not quite so easy to separate out the effects of genes and environment.

Later on, I was taking a psychobiology class, and the professor said something that I’ll never forget.  “Your genes create your environment.”  He was trying to say that every organism is instructed — by its genes — to pay attention to certain things that are very important to its survival and reproduction and to pay little attention to everything else.  The simplest example of this is that human beings have evolved to only see certain wavelengths of light.  Other animals have evolved to see a different set of wavelengths.  In a way, our genes have taken a guess at which wavelengths contain the visual information that we will need to survive and reproduce.  Those are the ones we’re capable of seeing as a part of our environment.  In some real way, UV light is not even a part of my environment, because I’m incapable of detecting it.

But the interaction between genes and environment also goes in the opposite direction.  That same professor talked about certain reptiles whose eggs were sensitive to the  temperature.  At certain temperatures, the eggs would produce males, and other temperatures the eggs would produce females.  Certain genes were being turned on or off by the temperature. The environment was determining gene expression!  (Of course, you could argue that this, too, is under genetic control, and so the genes are determining how much say should be given to the environment.)

This whole line of thinking was sparked by this week’s episode of Econtalk, in which Russ Roberts interviews the Oxford psychologist Teppo Felin about the vagaries of human attention and its dependence on our goals in any situation.

Anyway, no spoilers here, but Three Identical Strangers does have something very specific to say about Nature vs. Nurture and the domains of human experience where each one might have the upper hand.

Share this post

Jonathan Gold — Los Angeles loses a great writer, a champion of the city, and a Motörhead fan


The great Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold has died.  For several years, I used his book Counter Intelligence to plan out my weekends, which challenged you not only to try new types of food but to discover new corners of the city. Through him, I found restaurants that are still my favorites today, from El Sazon Oaxaqueño to the Apple Pan, from Casa Bianca Pizza Pie to Pollo a la Brasa.

Gustavo Arellano in the LAT: He deserves a spot in the pantheon of Los Angeles writers, alongside Charles Bukowski, Walter Mosley and Luis J. Rodriguez. 

Daniel Hernandez in L.A. Taco: Gold’s love of Mexican cuisines in particular was immeasurable; he used the phrase “taco lifestyle” in his work.

He was also a music writer and an aficionado of punk and hard rock, having contributed to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, which served the same role in my musical life as Counter Intelligence did in my culinary life.

Here’s Gold in that book: “Motörhead was the loud, wet fart punctuating the Mentos commercial of late-’70’s British rock.”

Share this post

Double meaning – “Putting a hat on a hat”

I recently discovered that this phrase — “putting a hat on a hat” — has two completely different meanings, one in comedy and one in football.

Here Bill Hader learns from Seth Myers what it means to put a hat on a hat (layering one joke on top of another to ill effect).

And, below, former tight end Cam Cleeland explains how an offense lines up against a defense, putting a hat on a hat (blocking each defender with a single offensive player):

Share this post

Wait, JJ Cale wrote “After Midnight”? And he’s dead?

Until just a minute ago, I had always assumed that JJ Cale was a really talented younger guy putting his own spin on older genres, maybe like a JD McPherson or a lesser-known Dwight Yoakam.  This based solely on a few great songs that had popped up in my Spotify playlists in the past couple of years.

But it turns out that he’s been around since the 1960’s, is considered to be one of the founders of the “Tulsa sound,” wrote the biggest hit song from Eric Clapton’s first solo album, and died just a few years ago in La Jolla.

Wow. Very sorry I missed the chance to see him perform live.


Share this post

Is Paul Ryan too far left for today’s GOP?

That’s what the New York Times implies with this headline:
“Ryan found himself on the margins as his party moved to the right.”

But is that right?  Isn’t Paul Ryan much more “conservative” than Donald Trump and his followers on many, many issues? (e.g., fiscal policy, free trade, traditional Christian morality, entitlement reform)

What would political journalism look like if reporters couldn’t use the terms right/left or liberal/conservative? Those words have become almost meaningless except as markers of tribalism. The vast majority of Republicans now support a president who is against free trade and who defies traditional Christian morality. Mainstream Democrats are all-in on free-trade and claim that sexual transgressions disqualify you from public office.

Note that the NYT changes the headline when you click through the actual article:
“Ryan Found Himself on the Margins as G.O.P. Embraces Trump”

They appear to be uncomfortable with their own left/right clickbait.

Share this post

Incredible Christian funk from a guy who ran a flour mill in Nigeria

Currently sitting in a coffee shop in Glassell Park, and they are playing one of my favorite artists of all-time, the obscure Nigerian funk master William Onyeabor, who died a couple years ago.  Here’s the song that turned me on to him, which I first heard on WMSE in Milwaukee. After abandoning his music career, Onyeabor ran a semolina flour mill in Nigeria.

Share this post

Start typing and press Enter to search

Shopping Cart