Posted by: Nathan | June 24, 2011

Three Meager Harry Potter Complaints

Last year, the wife and I read through all seven of the Harry Potters, and I must say they are better than I remembered them. Rowling’s universe is unique, rich, and extremely creative. Also, Rowling does a great job of leaving hints of where she is going throughout the septet, which I hadn’t caught the first time through (another reason to reread, boys and girls). However, there are a few small, irking details that I feel warrant mention just for fun.

Perhaps  my biggest pet peeve when it comes to fantasy or sci-fi is when an author creates something compelling but refuses to let her characters use it as anyone otherwise would. One perfect example is the althiometer in The Golden Compass (crappy book). Pullman imagines into existence a handheld device that will tell you the truth about anything if you can learn to decipher it. Lyra, our snotty intrepid heroine figures it out and proceeds to ignore it until urgent situations. Were I to have such a device, I’d use it for everything. “Should I apply to this job?” “Who makes the best pizza in town?” “Will I like this book?” “What should I get my wife for her birthday?” Why shouldn’t I use a pocket watch that has the perfect answer to every question? Everyone would do so.

For the most part, Rowling avoids this pitfall, but she is a little guilty nonetheless. Remember when Gilderoy Lockhart accidentally blasts off Harry’s arm in The Chamber of Secrets? They take Harry up to the infirmary and regrow his arm overnight. This is just one of dozens of amazing medical feats performed throughout the books, which I would be just fine with me if it weren’t for one glaring oversight: Harry’s eyesight. If you can regrow an entire limb overnight, you’d think a little eye surgery would be rosy stroll. Why don’t they fix Harry’s–and for that matter everyone who has glasses in the books–sight? It makes no sense. I’m guessing Rowling likes her protagonist in specs, and that’s why the entire international magical community cannot figure out the human eye.

Another glaring problem in the Potterverse is the library system. It seemed like in every book Hermione, sometimes accompanied by Ron and Harry, spends hours and sometimes days and weeks searching for potions or names or a solution to whatever mystery is afoot. Apparently reference librarians are frowned upon at Hogwarts. Sure, sometimes our heroes are trying to solve the problem secretly and so avoid Madame Pince; however, I don’t see why these answers were so darned impossible to find. Is there no card catalog? Heaven forbid they have a computer in which to enter search terms or–(gasp)–the Internet. The Ministry of Magic needs to get Arthur Weasley off of trying to understand household appliances and onto forming a let’s-understand-the-Internet task force.

The last minor objection I raise to Potter  has to do with Quidditch. I love reading about the sport (you can’t beat those Slytherin v. Gryffindor matches for excitement), but the scoring system is abysmal. A goal, i.e. quaffle-through-hoop, is worth ten lousy points. For these goals, you dedicate almost your entire Quidditch team: three Chasers to score, two Beaters to play D, and a Keeper, of course. The match doesn’t end until someone catches the snitch, which is worth 150 points. For this purpose–obviously the most important and frequently the only one that matters–each team has one player. One. Were I a Quidditch coach with this flawed scoring system, I’d leave my keeper in goal and send everyone else out looking for the snitch. Once found, we would plow over everyone to allow our seeker to get there first. In most of the matches in the books, the majority of play and scoring has nothing to do with the outcome of the game. Lower the value of the snitch to something akin to 50 points: significantly higher than a goal but not worth the entire match.

So there you have it–petty complaints from a Harry Potter fan (but not devotee). I’ll never write anything as good as the Harry Potter series (if I write anything at all), but I feel that these tiny issues could have been easily addressed. Ah well. I’ll read the books again someday anyway. As an aside, for all of you movies-are-better-than-books people, millions of other readers and I have known for years how The Deathly Hallows ends. Try reading; I dare you.

Posted by: Nathan | October 12, 2010

No Big Bang Theory Online? Come on, CBS

For whatever reason, CBS has found its way to the top of the networks, and it’s not shy of reminding us constantly of that sad fact. Why people are watching the bulk of CBS programming is beyond me. How many crime dramas can you watch before they all seem the same? Three CSIs and two NCISes? How uncreative is that? I’m also confused about why people want to watch comedies that star Bill Shatner or Charlie Sheen. Two and a Half Men is not bad: it’s abysmal.

All these crappy shows made me even more surprised to find The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), which is both hilarious and brilliant. The characters and plots are unique. The writing is sharp and witty. All of the actors excel in their respective roles. In short, TBBT is one of the best shows on television currently and a big part of why Thursday night is the best night on TV. It is one third of the comedy three-headed monster; the other two are NBC’s 30 Rock and, of course, The Office. Big Bang is so good that J and I have been forced to all but stop watching Community, which is another great show.

Indeed, the aforementioned trio of brilliant shows are some of the few programs that the wife and I consider appointment television. However, no one can watch his or her favorite shows every time they are on. We missed last week’s Big Bang Theory, but I wasn’t too sad because I figured I could watch it on CBS’s website. That is what I do whenever I’m unfortunate enough to miss The Office or 30 Rock because NBC is smart enough to put full episodes of its programs online. I was disappointed to find, however, that has clips of TBBT but no complete episodes.

CBS, let me take you aside here for a moment. How has it not occurred to you that your audience will find its shows on your website if you put them there? If you are worried about decreased TV audience, simply upload the episodes after they air. Also, how is NBC doing so well with so much of its programs online? Furthermore, think of the advertising revenue. You air commercials on TV, but they are fleeting. Ads online last as long as you like, and you can sell the rights again and again.

Most importantly, having your shows online helps maintain audience loyalty. Fans of your shows want to keep abreast with developments, and they cannot schedule their lives around your TV schedule. This is the online era; put your content online. I might find an alternate route for watching last week’s TBBT, but I would have been delighted to visit your website, CBS, instead.

I hope that all networks will upload full episodes of their programs in time. Until that happens, CBS’s unwillingness to cater to its fans by putting shows online is just another example of its subpar modus operandi.

Posted by: Nathan | August 9, 2010

How Much is the Googly-Eyed Geico Money?

If you live in the U.S. and watch a modicum of television, there is little doubt that you’ve seen at least one Geico commercial featuring the googly-eyed stack of bills that represents “the money you could be saving with Geico.” This goofy character shows up in random spots such as rooftops and bridges of ships. The Money attracts people’s attention using a variety of methods, including staring at people in restaurants, interrupting meetings, and following people on back roads. Truly, this Money is persistent, though I wonder how many people would get away with all of the crap he pulls.

How much are you really?

Sure, he’s a likable character, I suppose (it’s the googly eyes–they’re irresistible!), but this Money fellow raises many questions. How does he get around? He doesn’t have legs, arms, or any other obvious means of locomotion, yet he is ubiquitous. A second and related question is how does he manage to travel so far? If he can’t propel himself, does he hitch rides on planes and cars? How does he afford all this travel? Does he spend himself? If so, does that mean you get less money if you sign up with Geico? Also, what is the Money’s incentive? Surely he cannot want to get paid–he is money. Does he crave human attention? Is he lonely? Is he dangerous? How does he get into places where he isn’t expected?

Blue = $100

Yes, the questions surrounding this pile of bills are many and complex, but on a more pragmatic level one question is paramount: how much money is the Money? It is apparent that he goes to great lengths to disguise his actual worth. What do I mean? Well, let’s start with straps. The Money is stacked two bundles high, and both bundles are held together with white and blue straps. Anyone who has experience with currency straps knows that blue straps are for $100 bundles. Blue straps usually are used for piles of one dollar bills; thus, it would seem that the Money is $200 plus two eyes.

But hold on there, my friend. He’s too thin to be made of 100 one-dollar bills. In addition to this fact, there is a further, more intriguing element: the bill on top of him is a five! Perhaps, then, we are to think that the Money is $200 worth of fives? Nay, I tell you, for straps of fives that are $100 are much thinner than the Money is. And lest you think he is made of a strap of fives, which is worth $500, you should know that $500 straps are red.

So what are we to think, then? What is Geico telling us about the money we could be saving with them? It seems to me that two possibilities remain: 1) the Money consists of $200 in some ungodly mish mash of bills; 2) the Money wears his straps like a mask, and there is no way to know for sure how much cash you and I can save by switching to Geico. Given that Geico, like all insurance companies, doesn’t want to promise savings it cannot deliver, it seems most likely that option two is the right one.

Money, I call for you to reveal yourself as you are. Unstrap yourself and lay yourself bare for the world to see. It is the only way for us to truly understand you. Do it for the American people, but, more than that, do it for yourself. It is only by looking within ourselves that we can understand our real value.

Failing that, the next time any of you see the Money taunting, following, or otherwise bothering you just to make his presence known, grab him, tear off his blue straps, and count him.

Posted by: Nathan | July 17, 2010

Following Swann’s Way: An Interview with Me

(The lights go up on a cozy room with two comfortable armchairs with a small table between. A fire crackles merrily in the brick fireplace in the background, and outside the window one sees the faint outline of mountains. Two coffee mugs steam on the table. To your right, a pudgy man who is mostly bald with a thin mustache is smoking a bubble pipe. He takes a sip from his mug and speaks–he has a British accent.)

Hello, and welcome to Literary Corner. I’m your host, Snob E. Bookman, and tonight (or today depending on when you read this post) we interview Nathan who has just finished the first book of Marcel Proust’s epic seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time, entitled Swann’s Way. Why are we interviewing Nathan, you ask? Well, I’m a figment of his imagination, so I am accustomed to doing as he wishes. So now, let us bring in the star as of the show, so to speak, Mr. Nathan.

(Nathan enters and takes a seat in the empty squashy chair facing Bookman.)

SB: Good day, sir.

N: Good day to you.

SB: We are here to discuss Swann’s Way, which you have just finished reading. Tell me: why did you decide to read Proust?

N: Well, I’d heard a lot about him, as many people have. Proust is that hoity-toity author literary professors like to talk about but never actually assign (they do that with a lot of authors, actually). I’ve even heard him lauded as the best novelist of the 20th century. Naturally, I had to see if he lived up to the hype.

SB: Quite. Before we ask you whether or not Monsieur Proust exceed your expectations, let us first discuss a few aspects of the book itself, shall we? (He takes a pull from his bubble pipe and blows a bubble ring.)

N: Yes, let’s.

SB: Excellent. First, why don’t you give us a brief sketch of what the book is about?

N: That is a difficult task. The novel has three main sections. The first, Combray, is about Proust the narrator–

SB: You differentiate between Proust the author and Proust the narrator?

N: I do indeed, partially because the introduction to my edition suggested it that way, and partially because I don’t think Proust tries to represent himself as he truly is in the book. This isn’t an autobiography; it’s fiction.

SB: I see. Do go on.

N: (Takes a sip from his coffee) Mm, excellent coffee! Is this Caribou’s La Minita Peaberry?

SB: Indeed it is, good fellow. I don’t think you’d have imagined it any other way.

N: You’re right there. Anyway, back to the structure of the book. Combray is Proust’s recollection of growing up in the French countryside and the people, landscapes, and impressions he has of that time. The second part–and the largest–is called Swann in Love, and the title self-explanatory. Charles Swann (whom we meet briefly in part one) falls in love with Odette de Crecy, who doesn’t sound too attractive, by the way. At first they’re madly in love, but then complications arise as Swann finds out more about his mistress. Part three, Names of Places: The Name, covers a slightly older Narrator/Proust living in Paris. He frequently plays in the park on the Champs-Elysees where he falls in love with Gilberte, i.e. Swann’s niece. That’s probably enough synopsis.

SB: Agreed. Let us turn now to style, for which Proust is world famous. What did you make of it?

N: It is superb and he deserves his reputation on that count. True, it took me 100 pages to get the hang of it, but it is quite elegant. You see, Proust, who loves his asides and dependent clauses, often turns the sentence in various different ways, which can cause one to lose one’s sense of what the sentence is saying, especially if one is not careful or is sleepy, which, as we all know, makes reading for comprehension difficult under the best of circumstances; however, eventually, given that one continues reading Proust, one adopts a habit of not trying to make out the meaning of the sentence or, indeed, where (if anywhere) a given sentence may be heading, for Proust, like Odysseus in the legend, wanders the waters of meaning, encountering many distractions–as the sirens were for the Greek hero–before he meanders home to his lovely Penelope, which, in the epic simile I am currently employing, symbolizes what the crap he’s trying to say. It’s tough to get used to.

SB: I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded elegant and descriptive!

N: Well, there you are. Proust loves description more than just about anything. He lingers on every scene, every detail, and describes them all in minutia to the reader. He often goes on for a dozen pages about what a character’s feeling are about something he or she might do. Then, he abruptly brings about whatever the character was thinking about doing in a sentence. The rhythm is odd, but I got used to it and even enjoyed it at times.

SB: Let’s move onto characters. What did you make of them?

N: There are dozens of characters in Swann’s Way, but few of them matter much. The most important are Narrator/Proust, Odette, and the title character, M. Swann. Let’s start with the last of these. I liked Swann a lot at first because he held my attention. There is a bit of mystery about him for parts of the book. I wanted to see what he was all about. He grew less likable when Odette enters the book. At first their love affair is engaging and quite beautiful to read about, but when we find out what kind of person Odette is I grew impatient. I dislike her strongly, as I think you’re supposed to, but I couldn’t understand why Swann stays with her for hundreds of pages. What is he thinking?

SB: I think you’re a bit hasty here. Proust is not a novelist of logic but of emotion, surely.

N: Don’t call me Shirley. Go on, though.

SB: He isn’t interested in action, is he? He delves into the psyche of his characters and explores their emotions.

N: True enough. It isn’t that I didn’t notice or appreciate the talent that Proust displays in rendering emotions in powerful, tangible ways; it’s that I grew weary of lingering for long stretches of time in these depressing emotional states. It took far too long for Swann to confront Odette about her actions–I’m trying to avoid the word whoring.

SB: You have just failed.

N: (Takes a sip of delicious coffee) Yes, I did. Anyway, I wanted him to dump her because that’s the only move that makes sense. Of course, I grow impatient with other real people who are in bad relationships as well, so it helped me understand why people are so reluctant to extricate themselves from destructive relationships. That was of value.

SB: What of the plot of the book? You have confessed yourself a man who enjoys action.

N: Not so much action as development. I like to see movement from point A to…well, somewhere.

SB: All right, so what of Proust’s plot?

N: (Laughs) What plot? The entire book is continuous rumination on the same few things: memory, unrequited love, and loss. Nothing really happens. You could write a complete plot summary of the entire 600-some-page book on five pages. If plot is what you love about reading, don’t consider Proust. Stay away.

SB: Did you have other frustrations with the book aside from the long emotional scenes and lack of plot?

N: Yes, I did. I grew altogether weary of the narrator. He’s tiresome, whiny twerp!

SB: You don’t really mean to use the epithet twerp.

N: I do. Take the whole goodnight kiss from his mother–

SB: One of the most famous bits of the novel.

N: Yes. What kind of pansy kid gets so worked up over a goodnight kiss from his mom? He ruins his whole day wondering if his dad will let Mommy come and kiss him goodnight. You’re a kid! Go play outside and stop worrying. It’s not as if she won’t be there the next morning.

SB: You can’t relate to those tender scenes at all?

N: I can a little, I guess. But my recollection of childhood involves more playing and less worrying about something as trifling as a goodnight kiss. Perhaps if Proust didn’t come back to that theme so often I wouldn’t have hated it so strongly.

SB: But that is not his nature as a writer.

N: And that’s I why didn’t enjoy Proust very much: too much repetition and too much lingering in maudlin emotions–not enough motion in both plot and character interaction. He is the consummate writing of musings. The whole book is one enormous session of meanderings through his memory. I confess I didn’t see the point of most of his little recollections.

SB: But the recollections are the book! That longing to have the chance to turn back the clock and relive one’s life–that is the essence of Proust.

N: I agree but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book.

SB: Granted. That said, I presume you object to the notion of Proust as the best novelist of the 20th century.

N: You couldn’t be more right. He’s nowhere near that lofty title. I’d put at least a dozen if not more ahead of him, especially Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf, James (though he writes in two centuries)–even more recent writers such as Sebald or even Toni Morrison are better.

SB: So does that mean you do not intend to finish In Search of Lost Time?

N: Certainly not now. Perhaps someday I’ll take it up again.

SB: Finally, how would you rate Swann’s Way?

N: I give it three stars out of five. It has a lot of literary merit but not the kind that suits my taste.

SB: Very good. Well, that is all for Literary Corner. We thank our guest Nathan for being on the show.

N: You’re welcome.

SB: So from all of here…both of us…good night and happy reading.

N: Is there anymore coffee?

Posted by: Nathan | July 10, 2010

Best Jerseys of World Cup 2010

My life has been hijacked by the 2010 World Cup–although not as much as I would like. I try to catch as many games as I can among trips, baby showers, hanging out with friends, and working at the bank. Anyone who knows me knows I cannot help but pay attention to the uniforms these gentlemen from around the world are sporting. The World Cup is a chance for sports apparel companies to show their stuff on the biggest sporting stage in the world while simultaneously trying to inspire nationalistic pride. As usual, there are lots of misses and some hits. So it is on the eve of the final that I give you the 10 best jerseys of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

10. Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).

Most of the African sides chose to go with Puma for their uniforms, all of which feature a weird cut-out section on the right sleeve. This ill-conceived notion has kept many of the otherwise worthy African teams off of this list, but Cote d’Ivoire make it work better than anyone. I dig the orange and green, and the screened elephant on the right sleeve is a nice, subtle touch.

9. Portugal

The boys from Portugal have an excellent pair of jerseys for this World Cup. Their white “home” jerseys with the vertical red and green stripes are quite good, but it’s this red one with the horizontal green stripe that catch my eye. It’s a nice look, though I’m sure all the ladies would prefer Cristiano Ronaldo to be wearing no shirt at all…

8. Mexico.

Considering how obsessed Mexico is with the beautiful game, I’m always surprised that they don’t do better in World Cup play. These lovely green jerseys are quite nice. This year Adidas’ unis feature a plain color patch that interrupts their traditional three stripes on the shoulder and sleeves on most of their designs; I’m not a huge fan of that, but I dig the red and white collar. Mexico’s crest is pretty cool as well. These green duds are far, far better than their ugly black counterparts.

7. The Netherlands.

The Oranje made it to the final v. Spain, and I can’t help but think some of the credit is owed to these smashing construction-cone orange jerseys. I love that Holland has a flag that features red, white, and blue but wears orange everywhere. I’m sure there’s a reason for this tradition that I’m not willing to research, but whatever it is I applaud it. The color makes these jerseys memorable, but don’t overlook the wicked awesome lion crest.

6. Paraguay.

The red and white vertical striped uniforms from Paraguay represent what is wonderful about soccer uniforms: almost anything goes. Can you think of another major sport where a team could wear a jersey like Paraguay’s and look cool? Baseball? No. Football? Nope. Basketball maybe? Not yet, anyway. I dig the wide candy stripe outfits, Paraguay. The crest is pretty sweet as well. I also tip my cap to the full collar.

5. Spain.

La Furia Roja managed to live up to their hype in this World Cup, which is never easy to do. I thought for sure they would fall to the Germans, but they held the ball forever and scored on a beautiful corner kick to make the final. I picked them before the tournament, so I’m backing them tomorrow. Making all this success sweeter are the uniforms the Spanish don whenever they walk onto the pitch. I love the navy unis, but these red ones are extra nice. Spain’s enormous insignia is majestic, and I love the sleeve stripes. Bien hecho, muchachos.

4. United States.

The US blue away jersey has become my white whale (fitting for the blog title, no?). I held this magnificent jersey  in my own hands the week before the Cup started. The classy navy, the bold white stripe slanting from shoulder across the chest, the proud (but not all that great) US soccer crest on the chest. Oh, I wanted it. But it was $70 and, so I thought at the time, a frivolous purchase. I set it back on the rack and haven’t seen one since, though I have looked. Our white home unis were okay, but I love the design of blue ones. Sure, some Philistines call them “Miss America” jerseys, but what do they know? The fact that I can’t find one of these jerseys in stores or online speaks to their popularity.

3. Germany.

Give it up for Deutschland and their soccer aesthetics. Along with Spain, Germany had one of the best home/away jersey combinations in the tournament. Their whites with the thin vertical stripe that crosses under the crest are classy indeed, but these black jerseys are inspired. The black makes them menacing (which makes sense considering how amazing Germany is), and the red trim is a bold touch. I’m also a big fan of the off-white jersey numbers. Add all that to the classic eagle crest, and you have one impressive uniform. I’d be happy to snatch up one of these beauties if I find it for cheap. By the way, Germany is going to be a force in 2014. Wow.

2. Australia.

Australia had only two things going for it this World Cup: 1) their awesome nickname: The Socceroos; 2) their jerseys, especially this lovely yellow, white, and green one. Separating the shoulders from the chest with bold colors works well, and I also dig the white strip across the chest. The Aussies also have a kickin’ crest with a kangaroo and an emu; how cool is that? These jerseys are standouts even though the team wearing them wasn’t.

1. Argentina.

If there is one team who consistently delivers classy-looking jerseys at the World Cup, it’s Argentina. The Abicelestes always bring talent to the tournament and navy blue jerseys, but it’s these superb white and sky blue striped shirts that say “Argentina.” I occasionally wonder why other teams in other sports don’t adopt a thin vertical stripe design that Argentina works to perfection. It’s striking yet not overbearing and looks great on the field. I hope someone summons the courage to be bold and take a page from Argentinian soccer, but until someone does this design and color scheme will remain the signature of the Abicelestes and their proud history.

If you’re scoring at home (or even if you’re alone), that makes the final tally Puma 1, Nike 4, and Adidas 5. It has been a memorable World Cup both for striking sports attire and on-field action. My official pick for tomorrow is Spain 2, Netherlands 1. It should be an excellent final, and we’ll see who gets to have a star above their team crest the next time the World Cup rolls around.

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