Saturday, July 31, 2010

Heard on the Street. . .

My wife took the car to go to a picnic at a co-worker's house this morning, so my son and I caught the bus to the mall. He needed to buy a birthday present at the Lego store, and I thought I'd treat him to lunch and a movie.

Getting the bus turned out to be less hassle than I'd expected. WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, has GPS-equipped buses, so we were able to log on, find the time the bus was expected at our stop, then leave the house a few minutes before that.

The driver was a man in his 30s with near waist-length dreadlocks. Most of the people said hello to him when they got on, and thanks when they got off. The mall was at the end of the line, and when we got off, I overheard him tell a woman her hair looked nice. She told him thank you.

Seems like you must know most of these folks, I said to him.

See 'em every Saturday, the driver replied. These are my people.

Later, waiting to get popcorn at the movies, I heard an older woman ask a younger woman (her daughter?) if she was planning to go out tonight and what time she'd be back.

I don't know if I wanna go out with him tonight, she replied. Not if we're just gonna break up. I'd feel too sad.

So why not just spend the night with him at his place, the older woman said, and then break up in the morning?

Monday, July 19, 2010

So Many [Fill in the Blank]; So Little Time

Even if I only owned 600 CDs, 300 LPs, 100 DVDs and VHS tapes, and 100 cassette tapes), I suspect I'd still feel overwhelmed by my entertainment options.

But I've also got months of MP3 files on my computers for my five (working) MP3 players, Slacker and Pandora accounts, and several hours of movies purchased from iTunes, mostly to entertain my 9-year-old on long car trips.

Then there's Netflix.

For a while, the offer--watch as many movies as you want for $17 a month--seemed too good to be true, but I gave up my Blockbuster card once I did the math. I was getting about eight movies a month, which cost about the same as a Netflix subscription. And I didn't have to worry about surly clerks and driving to the store.

Things got even better when Netflix began to offer movies on demand. It took some experimenting, but after a while I was able to do it with an old laptop hooked up to the TV via the VHS player and a cobbled-together array of cables.

It was just enough of a hassle--dragging out the laptop, finding the cables, connecting them in the right order, waiting for the computer to boot, realizing it wasn't configured for dual displays, rebooting again--so that we mostly did it only when I'd forgotten to queue up a kid-friendly picture for Family Movie Night.

I suppose we could have just gotten a new DVD player or some other device that connected to the Internet, but we were too cheap. And then Netflix announced that it was offering streaming video on the Nintendo Wii. Suddenly, watching movies on-line became a lot easier.

So, here I am now with nearly 150 movies in my regular Netflix queue, about 82 in the Watch Instantly queue, and 23 (release date unknown) in the Saved queue.

I don't know how those numbers compare to other Netflix customers. I do know that, sometimes, contemplating my queue, I start to feel a little guilty. I really should organize it, deleting the movies I'll never watch (even though I know they'd be good for me), and arranging what's left so all the musicals, film noir, and Hollywood blockbusters aren't clumped together.

I might, one day, just like I might actually sit through Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Meanwhile, I'm thinking of a Qwest commercial from the days when the company's catchphrase was "ride the light." In it, a man checking into a seedy motel asks if there's any entertainment. The clerk tells him they've got "every movie ever made in every language, anytime, day or night."

I couldn't find the time now to watch just the ones in English, but maybe in 20 or 30 years, when I'm old. . . If I can still lift a remote.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

New Wheels (Part Two)

I didn't know it then, but while I was signing the credit card slip for my new Cannondale bike, I was coming down with bronchitis. And then, a few weeks later, when I was finally feeling better, I had minor surgery on my ankle. The result was that the new bike sat in the basement for about six weeks before the orthopedist gave me the okay to ride it.

The temperature's been in the 90s, but after it had cooled down Thursday evening, I went out with a friend. We rode to Reston and back on the W&OD Trail, about 13 miles. And yes, the bike was as comfortable and as much fun to ride as it was the first time I got on it.

Smart People (Part Two)

So, after I wrote about how more and more it's begun to seem to me that Americans mistrust intelligence, Judith Warner writes about the same thing here in the New York Times Magazine.

She begins by observing that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was probably downplaying her intelligence during her recent confirmation hearings because "[a]ny hint of an I’m-better-than-you sentiment, especially if that sense of superiority is based on intellect or fancy speech or having attended an Ivy League school, can go over very badly in America today, where 'elite' has gone from being a word of admiration to one of insult."

Given how prevalent this anti-intellectual bias seems, I'd been thinking that it wasn't a new phenomenon. I'm probably right. Warner goes on to quote from Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (It won the Pulitzer in 1964.) This one sentence sent me to in search of the book: "[Intellect] is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism."

Warner also quotes Susan Jacoby, whose The Age of Unreason contains frightening examples of what Americans don't know.

According to a survey Jacoby cites, American 15-year-olds rank near the bottom in math literacy when compared to students in 28 other countries. Two thirds of us don't know the three branches that make up our government and an equal number can't name one Supreme Court Justice.

Now, just one more set of numbers,
these from a column by the Times' David Brooks: "In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. . . . In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an 'important person.' Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes."

Friday, July 16, 2010

But the View was Great!

Somewhere on the hike (three miles? Five?) to Jump Rock, at Goshen Scout Reservation last month. I'd had minor ankle surgery a few weeks before, so I was surprised to be able to make it up and back. The view from Viewing Rock (about two-thirds of the way up) really was great, though.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Smart People

It took moving to Virginia three years ago for me start to think Americans aren't comfortable with intelligence. All the dads I met talked about their son's athletic gifts; none about how well they did in school. After a few weeks, I told my wife I thought most of them would rather have their sons grow up to be Alex Rodriguez than Bill Gates.

When I put this theory to one woman at an elementary school science competition recently, she thought for a moment before saying, "I guess there's nothing wrong with being smart. As long as you don't hold it over other people."

I suspect this discomfort with intelligence is the reason behind the criticism President Obama gets from columnists and commentators who deride him for his "arrogance" about being "the smartest guy in the room."

Of course, it comes from people who should know better. Like scholar Charles Murray, who famously said during the campaign that "the last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government."

The thing is, Alex Rodriguez's skills--like all athletic skills--were most useful eons ago. It used to be that the survival of the tribe depended on hunters with strong arms (good for throwing stones to bring down game) and strong legs (good for chasing food). Rodriguez
may be a joy to watch on the baseball field, but it's Bill Gates's insight, business savvy, and intelligence that count in our world.

On some level, I think most of us understand this. All the same, I'm not waiting for The Washington Post to announce that some kid with a 4.0 GPA and 1600 on the SATs has agreed to go to MIT, in the same way that the paper breathlessly covered the Wizards selecting John Wall in the recent NBA draft.