Thursday, July 30, 2009

Awesome Things from My Childhood: The Wayside School Books

I've been in a nostalgic mood lately, so I thought I'd look back on one of my favorite book series as a little kid: the Wayside School books. Written by Louis Sachar (who later went on to write Holes), these stories offered a lot of humor and surrealism that made them stand out over the normally lame children's books.

Of course the best book of the series was the original, Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Here we are first introduced to the school that was built 30 stories high with one room on each story thanks to an error by the builder. The school was also known for mysteriously not having a 19th floor, because the builder accidentally put the 20th floor right over the 18th.

The stories focus on the group of students on the 30th floor and their various teachers. Nearly all of the stories in this book are so absurd that they make Alice in Wonderland look like a lucid and realistic tale. Most of them were humorous, but some were legitimately scary (the story of Ms. Gorf being turned into an apple and eaten by the janitor immediately comes to mind).

Some of the best stories in this book also include morals or lessons learned by the students included in all the surrealism. While Bebe Gunn churns out an insane amount of art in each class period, it is her sidekick Calvin whose one drawing ends up being the best. Class bully Terrence gets punished for stealing balls at recess by being kicked over a fence. The three Erics are often judged solely by their names and not by their actual character. All of these stories were interesting and funny, but also contained lessons that a kid could subconsciously understand.

For me, the most memorable character is easily Sammy. He comes into the class smelling bad and wearing many raincoats, and after insulting the class the teacher removes his raincoats one at a time, until he is revealed to be a dead rat. It makes no sense, is profoundly disturbing, and also really awesome because of that (far more interesting than reading about a fuzzy caterpillar that eats fruit).

With these books, Sachar was easily able to introduce young children to advanced ideas like surrealism, while also having productive messages hidden in the stories. They were a great way for weird kids like me to unleash their imaginations and learn to think creatively. These are the types of things that should be in every elementary school classroom, instead of boring books that knock kids over the head with morals and values or have no imagination to them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Translating Chris Johnson's Twitter

The explosion of the popular website twitter has truly been a gift upon us all. For the first time ever, regular joes like us are allowed to follow and possibly even converse with some of the biggest stars on the planet.

One such star is Tennessee Titans running back Chris "Every Coach's Dream" Johnson. Thanks to the glory of the internet, we can know what this bright young man is doing nearly all the time every day as he prepares for the upcoming football season. Because some of his twitter messages can be hard to comprehend for the average football fan, I thought I would do a service and translate a few of his memorable entries.


For starters, we can clearly see that Chris is upset, based on his excessive use of the caps lock key. Next, we look for a subject. As you can see, Mike Vick appears to be the topic of this particular entry, and Chris seems to be referring to his recent suspension from the NFL by commissioner Roger Goodell. With some more research, we can see that "THE NFL TRIPPIN" likely means that he thinks the NFL is being unjust towards Vick's situation.

Translation: "The National Football League is really being unfair towards Michael Vick. He has already been in prison for two years, so I believe a suspension of him would be superfluous. This issue angers me greatly."

July 26th, 10:47 PM -- "
Me and mike(sky)walker and @fatnmack44 dex dex big brah dco big cuz wayne and cam.We in club 23 downtown last night before seasonwe goingham"

This one appears to be much more complicated. There are many different subjects and confusing nicknames that need to be sifted through. Mike Walker is another NFL player and it appears that Chris was at a club called "Club 23" with him downtown. Dex dex, big brah, dco, big cuz, wayne, and cam are all likely members of Chris' group of friends. In fact, it appears many people were at the aforementioned club. I'm still unsure on the ham part at the end, but I will make my best effort.

Translation: "Mike Walker, Big Brother, DCO, Large Cousin, Cam, and I gathered last night at Club 23 downtown. Before the season begins, we will eat pork."

July 26th, 1:52 PM -- "
@KennyTurner3 he beat me I want lie but I aint call him out he call me out and I killed him tell him to stick to working out"

This one is somewhat easier as Christopher elects to use "he" instead of a strange nickname. We can see that some sort of trash talking is going on, but it's not clear what exactly he is talking about. "I want lie" seems to imply that he needs to lie down. Perhaps he is ill? Or maybe he wants to lie to someone. This is where we need to look at context to determine the true intended meaning of the sentence. "I killed him" also seems to imply that a murder took place at first glance, but I believe he meant that he defeated the person decisively. This one is very tricky, but once again I'll try.

Translation: "He defeated me, and now I feel ill and want to lie down. I did not call him out, it was he who called me out. I defeated him in a swift and decisive fashion. You should tell him to stick to exercising."

That was a difficult challenge, but I think I've succeeded in spreading the word of Chris Johnson and making it available to people of all ages and creeds. This man needs to be heard, and it would be a shame of anyone missed out on his wisdom.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Disturbing Hidden Messages in Music Videos

The blog-a-day-challenge has already failed -- but hey, five days in a row was pretty good for my standards (plus Sunday is the lord's day, you can't expect me to work then).

With Michael Jackson's recent death, I felt like exploring some music videos. Once the hallmark of MTV and other music stations, now they mostly are seen on youtube and from the hours of 4-6 AM. I always found it an interesting medium, as an artist tries to create a story in such a short time period, and all the while has to be lamely mouthing their words to match the song.

Most music videos don't put a ton of effort into their plot either, which can sometimes pay hilarious dividends. Here are some videos that the artist probably thought was cute or cool, but become extremely creepy once you go beneath the surface.

Justin Timberlake - "What Goes Around Comes Around"

Synopsis: Justin Timberlake meets Scarlett Johansson at a party, they become lovers, Scarlett cheats on him with friend, they fight, and she dies in a car accident.

Hidden message: This one admittedly isn't as subtle, but still deserves recognition. Just follow the chain of events from the synopsis: meet, love, cheating, fight/break up, DEADLY CAR WRECK. Apparently cheating on Justin Timberlake is now an offense that warrants the death penalty. Because you know, what goes around comes around. That is some serious hardcore justice.

However I have to admit, the dialogue in this video is first rate. I love watching this video and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Taylor Swift - "You Belong to Me"

Synopsis: Taylor Swift is the nerdy girl next door who spends her time studying and reading, while always harboring a big crush on the boy next door. Unfortunately the boy has a cheerleader girlfriend (also played by Taylor Swift) while nerdy girl is stuck playing clarinet in the band watching him play on the football team. On prom night he asks if she's going with a cute note from his window and she says she's studying, but then she shows up and they fall in love.

Hidden message: Drop those books, put down that clarinet, and take off those glasses -- you need to get a boy! What a disturbing message for Ms. Swift to send to the impressionable youth that listen to her music. Maybe her next video will focus on her getting plastic surgery so she can finally be hot enough for that male model she's been eyeing.

On a side note, don't you think that guy would have noticed that nerdy girl looked an awful lot like the cheerleader he was dating? I mean how stupid is he? They really should have just gotten an actress to play his girlfriend instead of skimping like that, as it added a whole new level of disturbing logic to the video. Is nerdy girl actually the same as cheerleader girl and she's been living a sordid double life? Is she an evil twin of nerdy girl? I WANT ANSWERS.

Okay, so there were only two that I could think of because I don't watch that many music videos. But they were a pretty good two!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Five Songs Whose Popularity Helped Destroy My Faith in Humanity

When I say or write something deeply cynical and bitter, people will often ask "what made you this way?" or "why are you so negative?" So much so, that I began to wonder myself. So I traced back to my roots, before I was fully who I am now, to see what events could have caused me to become like this.

After researching, I think I've found at least a large reason. It's no secret that popular music is often incredibly bad -- I can live with that most of the time. However, the following songs are so bad, so irredeemably awful and devoid of any artistic value, that I began to see the world in a different light. Hearing these songs and seeing their videos on MTV is when I finally realized that something was just not right here.

5. The Baja Men - "Who Let the Dogs Out"

What started as stupid fun soon turned into a national nightmare, as "Who Let the Dogs Out" went from joke song to a full blown fad. The first couple times hearing someone say the lyrics in public was almost humorous. Unfortunately the following nine billion times weren't as tolerable.

4. Uncle Kracker - "Follow Me"

While this song isn't ear-bleedingly offensive to the senses like others that will appear on the list, it still manages to be one of the most annoying songs ever. Sometimes a song is so inoffensive that it becomes more offensive than anything you could ever imagine -- this song is a textbook example of that. With its 2nd grade valentine lyrics and one note chorus, this song is appealing to the lowest common denominator at its finest -- and it worked, as it inexplicably soared through the charts.

Possibly the biggest problem with this song and songs similar to it is that the people who enjoy the song always feel some kind of personal connection to it. "Follow me man, things are gonna be alright." That's like, so deep. The fact that these people seem to be taking relationship and life advice from a guy going by the name "Uncle Kracker" is something that severely disturbed me, and still does to this day. While the artist has mercifully disappeared off the face of the earth, this song still can be found tainting the airwaves on various light rock stations.

3. Lou Bega - "Mambo No. 5"

Like a bad rash, Lou Bega came out of nowhere to sweep America and disappeared just as quickly -- thank God. With a combination of jazz, hip hop, and mambo, Bega was admirably able to desecrate several musical genres at once with this gag inducing trainwreck of a song. Dumb pop songs have their place in culture and I respect that, but do they really need to be this dumb?

2. Limp Bizkit - "Nookie"

A fairly large number of Limp Bizkit songs could have made this list -- the band's success in general seems to be a strange abstract argument against evolution. While all of their songs are an insult to music, this one in particular was bad. Featuring Fred Durst's lame-even-for-a-white-guy rapping and crude incoherent lyrics backed by abrasive guitars, this song inexplicably became a huge hit and got heavy rotation on MTV. As a result, we as a nation were subjected to Fred Durst and people wearing their hat backwards. It's safe to say, "you can take that cookie and shove it up your (yeah)" isn't exactly the high point of American civilization.

1. Smash Mouth - "All Star"

This is it folks. The song that officially destroyed my faith in the American public. The most annoying song by possibly the worst band of all time. "All Star" swept the nation like a case of ebola virus, only slightly less painful. When I went to summer camp everyone was singing this song, and all I could think of was "for the love of god, please shut up." When hearing the song, I could actually feel the soul be sucked out of my body.

It's not just the rancid sound of the track or the kindergarden lyrics that make this so bad -- it's the prolonged exposure I've had to suffer from it since. This song simply would not go away. For nearly two years after it came out we were exposed to hearing these clowns perform at every major sport's all star game (obviously a ploy by the band to get more publicity, which makes the song even worse) and every three seconds on the radio. Shrek, a movie that until that point had been pretty good, was almost singlehandedly ruined by this song. Nothing was safe from its contaminating force.

This song singlehandedly turned me from a wide eyed young boy with hope and joy into a cynical critic. I was all set on the path to mindless conformity until I saw people singing this song in public and said "I will not become that." While the song makes me want to commit violent crimes and actually causes cancer with too much exposure, in a way I have to thank it. Without this terrible song, I would have just been a normal optimist like everyone else. And that's not really much fun.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Previewing the New Season of Hell's Kitchen

Last Tuesday the new season of Fox's cooking reality show Hell's Kitchen debuted, and so far many questions remain unanswered. Will Chef Ramsay yell "GET OUT, JUST GET OUT!" and "IT'S STONE COLD!" 25 times or 30 times per episode? Will Cocky New Yorker Who Ain't Gonna Take No Crap From Nobody version 6.0 take Ramsey outside and finally give him the beatdown he's had coming to him? Will one of the aspiring chefs sever their own hand trying to cut celery and be sent to the emergency room? We'll have to watch to find out, as 16 pseudo cooks duke it out for a chance to have their name plastered on a restaurant that Gordon Ramsay barely has any actual connection to. To save time, here are some potential highlights in store for this season:

- Chef Ramsay will finally cross the line when he strangles one of the male contestants and forces the rest of the chefs to devour his corpse.

- People will continue to dine at Hell's Kitchen, despite the rather disconcerting name, the distraction of hearing Ramsey shout obscenities at the chefs, and the fact that the restaurant is known for never getting appetizers out within an hour.

- A big time celebrity (possibly Corey Feldman or that guy from Saved By the Bell) will dine at Hell's Kitchen, only to have his steak be overcooked.

- Chef Ramsey will continue to make the nominations for elimination process irrelevant by simply eliminating the chef he wants to or feels is the worst for ratings.

- Jean Philippe will crack a funny one liner at one of the diners. Man that dude is hilarious.

- A woman will emerge victorious, finally overcoming the age old stereotype that women don't belong in the kitchen.

- One of the chefs will DIE. Or will he? You'll have to tune in next week to find out!

- The chefs will be awoken one morning at 4 AM by clanging trash cans, a college marching band, a 747 jet engine, and a live performance by classic rock group ACDC.

- The answer to the question "WHO COOKED THE RISOTTO?" will finally be answered, and it will surpass all expectations.

- Chef Ramsay will run into controversy with animal rights group PETA after referring to one of the less talented female chefs as a "cow".

Overall, this should be the most exciting and unpredictable season of Hell's Kitchen yet. I mean, didn't you see that montage at the beginning?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Revisiting Daria

Sometimes a TV show we vaguely remember kind of liking from our childhood is seen later and enjoyed on an entirely different level. For me, that show is MTV's cult favorite Daria. It aired from 1997-2002, and I remember occasionally watching it and being amused, but at the same time not entirely understanding what I was seeing.

Now, thanks to the magic of youtube and soon a long awaited DVD release, I've been able to enjoy the show. And now, after going to high school and just in general becoming a more bitter and disillusioned person, the show has instantly become one of my favorites.

The show's bespectacled heroine, Daria Morgendorffer, is an extremely cynical and smart girl. The show chronicles her through her high school years, dealing with her eccentric family (including her popular sister Quinn) and the general absurdity of her suburban town. Daria is famous for wearing the same green jacket and boots, and rarely showing emotion unless it is a smile at the expense of someone else's misfortune.

The show is unflinchingly funny, with most of the humor coming from Daria and her friend Jane's sarcastic quips about the world around them. High school stereotypes, cliques, and impending college doom are all satirized perfectly. The characters are nearly all interesting and well rounded. I'm actually amazed a show this intelligent lasted so long on a channel like MTV (no offense to MTV fans... actually offense to them, what do I care).

For people like me who missed this show the first time around, I can't recommend it enough. It might be the funniest high school show ever on TV. An anonymous hero has uploaded most of the episodes onto youtube, and you can watch them here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Blog-a-Day Challenge

This will come off as a lame post (I preface a lot of my writing with cautionary messages, as if I don't want people to read it), but I think it's time I actually challenged myself and tried to be vaguely productive.

People familiar with me know that I generally prefer not talking to people or adventuring particularly far from my comfort zone. I don't leave the house unless it's absolutely necessary or I'm forced to, and rarely strike up conversations with people. I usually look detached from the world around me. I have a feeling a lot of people perceived me as being weird or antisocial (I always preferred the term "reclusive", since it has more of a genius, Howard Hughes-esque quality to it).

All this is why I've always liked expressing myself through writing. My lifelong dream for the last year or so has been to operate a blog and improve my writing (a fairly pathetic lifelong dream really, I guess president of the United States and astronaut were too unattainable) -- unfortunately I'm incredibly lazy even about things I enjoy doing, so I'd always write one entry and put it off. Often I'd get stuck trying to think of a clever enough name for the blog -- something eye popping and clever that would rake in the readers and make me an internet phenomenon. Ferrets on a tractor was a personal favorite after the short lived Snakes on a Plane sensation.

So, two days ago I joined the rampant internet cocaine binge that is Facebook, and I am already hooked. I feel like Tony Montana from Scarface, constantly in a search for more Facebook power. There is a huge pile of Facebook on my table and I want to stick my nose in it. Even while sporting a tiny list of friends and having a sadly blank wall that doesn't include a picture of me, I can already feel its tempting powers wrapping around my torso like tentacles.

Joining Facebook seems to have sparked something in me. I'm not sure if it's healthy yet, but I've had a sudden proactive urge to do stuff. So with this in mind, I've decided to make my former blog fantasy a reality. I will attempt to write an entry every day for as long as possible, until I either feel like I've accomplished enough or collapse and die from exhaustion. Each entry will be conveniently linked on my facebook wall for your personal enjoyment.

My expectations are rather low -- I don't actually expect people to read this crap. I'm pretty much doing this for myself as a personal challenge, and just to have fun with it. If I accomplish that, it will be a victory for me.

Anyways, I just realized I wrote a really long blog entry about me writing a blog. That's kind of pathetic. But I guess I have to start somewhere.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bring on the Robots

Now is a good time to be starting an angry Twins based blog. Two backbreaking losses in a row, one which was caused by Ron Gardenhire's usual terrible managing and another at least partially caused by one of the worst game deciding calls I've ever seen in my life.

After blowing a 10 run lead, I didn't think I'd come in here making excuses -- I created this blog with full intentions of going into a long, possibly profanity laden rant about how terrible Gardenhire and various members of the Twins are. However, given the ridiculous ending of the game, it seems fitting to take it in a slightly different direction.

In case you haven't seen the play yet, the Twins were down a run in the 9th inning when A's pitcher Michael Wuertz threw a wild pitch. Catcher Kurt Suzuki couldn't find the ball, and Michael Cuddyer hustled around third attempting to score the winning run. While the ball got to the plate before Cuddyer did, he quite obviously slid underneath the tag. The game should have been tied. Instead, Cuddyer was called out by the home plate umpire, capping a truly monumental Twins loss.

Basically, the Twins had this game taken away from them by an umpire. Now I know an umpire's job is difficult, but it's amazing to me that baseball won't even review or try to fix a call that is so important. One game like this can make or break a team's season -- just refer to the Twins last year, who fell in a one game playoff with the White Sox to lose the division title. Baseball has gone on too long with this tradition of "human error" interfering with what the players do on the field.

Baseball has a decision to make. To me, it's an absolute no brainer to add instant replay in situations like this that have massive implications on the outcome of the game.

Many people see this as opening a can of worms and eventually doing away with umpires entirely - personally, I don't see a problem with that. Umpires are an archaic, outmoded tradition, and if it were up to me we'd do away with them entirely. They get paid to get calls right and especially this season they haven't even been able to do that correctly. We have the technology to look up and see any call, to map balls and strikes instead of having a human guess if it is one or not. It's time to stop wasting money on umpires because of some outdated notion that baseball needs a "human element".

The game should be decided by the players, not by umpires. Last night's game was an example of far too many this season that have been tainted by inefficient umpiring. It's time for baseball to finally make a change.