Archive for March, 2010

31
Mar
10

Liz Lemon and Jerry Seinfeld

I had the privilege of basically watching every episode of 30 rock all in a row. I call this a privilege for two reasons. First, its a good show and I like it, but second, it let me get a feel for the overall artistic value of the show. In other words, I got to do a little philosophy.

Since I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld at this time too, I was thinking about what made Seinfeld so great and what features, if anything, 30 Rock shares with it. I haven’t really come up with any answers, so I’d be interested if someone has a developed take on these shows.

Seinfeld as a show is kind of narrower and more realistic, although I guess Kramer is kind of like Tracy Jordan. For instance, most Seinfeld episodes are named after a certain genre of person such as “the Jimmy” or “the Chinese Woman” and people are schematized to serve as representations of common daily struggles such as dealing with a “low talker” or a “face painter.” Jerry’s girlfriends are also a parade of caricatured dating nightmares (think, the “two face.”) For 30 Rock, the emphasis and plot points are usually much more tied to show business than Seinfeld, which is really just about living in New York and VERY daily issues (think about how the dry cleaner as a person and a destination figures in episodes). Also, it’s worth pointing out that the list of characters in Seinfeld is basically four, while 30 rock has at least 5. Another thing I notice is that New York is really an agenda item for 30 rock and it’s often contrasted with Jack’s Boston heritage (his love interest in season 4 is from Boston as well) or Kenneth’s humble southern origins (he’s from Georgia), whereas Seinfeld is more implicitly solipsistic and just assumes that everything is happening in New York: there’s almost no reference to any other part of the world (maybe Florida where Jerry’s parents live). Finally, Seinfeld has way more old people — Nanna, George’s parents, uncle Leo, the old guy Elaine dates, and various other situations involving the elderly. As a consequence, death is much more present in Seinfeld:  George’s girlfriend Susan, Gary (Seinfeld’s conniving bald friend who didn’t have chemotherapy), the old woman who dies in “the pony remark” whose funeral prevents Jerry from playing in the baseball championship.

I think the success of Seinfeld is all about each character’s relative equal level of insanity. George is fat, bald, and neurotic, and Kramer is of course crazy. Even Jerry, the big boss, reveals his irrationality and weakness at times, which is what makes “one the gang.” Elaine, to a lesser extent, has episodes of mistake or cruelty.

30 Rock is different in that the jokes are hierarchy based. Think of Lutz. Liz walks into the room and yells “EVERYONE SHUT UP” pauses and then yells, after everyone is already quiet, “LUTZ SHUT UP.” But she meets her match in Jack who constantly derides her. He’s cool and in control, though of course I think part of the show’s brilliance is that his friendship with Liz really does develop as he faces challenges that he can’t handle. There are conservatives and liberals (Seinfeld is almost never political), and higher and lower class as Jack’s upper class and corporate sensibilities are injected to every situation. “Lemon” is the perennial victim of most episodes. Her social ineptitude is contrasted with her professional manner and competency.

Anyway, Seinfeld is all about the repeated argument that continues to evolve throughout the show. J Peterman tells Elaine that he’s in “Burma, or as you might know it, Myanmar.” In the next 10 minutes, every major character has an exchange that repeats this joke, amplifying it and mutating in subtle ways. Jerry says “Burma, you mean Myanmar.” Then Kramer walks in and says “Where’s Burma” and Jerry fills him in, “It’s Myanmar.” Sometimes other minor characters serve to amplify these simple little disagreements as well, proving one character right over the other.

30 Rock has more visual jokes (think of Frank’s hats) and works by using sarcasm and pacing. Jack’s whispery voice or his deadpan delivery are essential to 30 rock’s humor, as well as the not-over-the-top mentions of ridiculous happenings in character’s lives. For example Frank pees into jars in the office during one episodes.

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27
Mar
10

Boston accent

Everyone knows that Bostonites stereotypically talk by dropping out the distinctive “r” sound in “hard.” Stereotypically people satirize this accent by saying something like “you can pahk the cah next to hahvahd yahd,” for “you can park the car next to harvard yard.”

I recently found out that dropping the “r” sound when “r” precedes a consonant has a linguistic name and also a long history and even a connection with other languages. People who, like Bostonites, do not pronounce the “r” sound, are non-rhotic speakers and those who always pronounce the “r” are rhotic speakers.

What I think is interesting about this is that when it comes to language, there really is no right and wrong way. Some people complain endlessly about ebonics or non-standard English or accents or slang, but in the end, language is just a tool of communication and derives its viability or rationality from the community of speakers that use it. What is also worth mentioning is a point about social phenomenon of all sorts. At the surface, there is often prejudice. People from the south say “y’all” and Bostonites say “yahd” and both practices, when seen from an opposing viewpoint is supposed to mark ignorance crudity, but both types of speech have a sophisticated explanation. Y’all is an attempt to create second person plural, which English lacks, and “yahd” is just the expression of a trend in many languages to drift toward new pronunciations.

A surface phenomenon finds fuller expression in further understanding.

25
Mar
10

Boston, the worst of both worlds

I thought I was about to make a little money during the year of 2009, but nope, Mass taxes finished me off. Good to know all those taxes are going to important social services and public works projects. O wait, the roads don’t work, public transportation is sub par, and they’ve been trying to fix the potholes next to my street for two years now. No success as of yet.

Boston never quite committed to a transportation system. They decided to invest too little in the roads so that they aren’t yet average, but they did invest enough in the roads to make the public transportation inadequate as well.

Also, I got another $100 bullshit ticket from Somerville so I’m just really upset.

23
Mar
10

links

Usually, I don’t just do links, but I found these worthwhile.

Here is a well-known site that I thought was good today: top 10 places you don’t want to go. I especially liked the alienation zone, which I imagine as being a kind of post-apocalyptic theme park, and how the Ukrainian ministry of emergencies is literally translated as the “ministry of extraordinary situations.”

The wikipedia article for the Quipu, which is the Aztec’s way of storing data. Patterns of rope are used to record data, probably numerical. There may have been a universal Quipu system, but its possible that each one was unique to its maker and served as a mnemonic tool rather than a way to preserve information in a public form.

23
Mar
10

drugs and capitalism

My philosophy professor mentioned offhandedly that national parks are used to grow pot. Not believing, I did some research, but it didn’t take long to find articles quoting federal agents complaining about the use of national parks as marijuana farms (here’s one).

Apparently, national parks are underpatrolled and located within the U.S., which makes smuggling unnecessary. The article above claims that it’s common for these plots of land to be guarded by crude tripwire explosives and armed guards with automatic weapons. I wouldn’t expect anything less from drug cartels, but I may not ever visit a national park again.

The lesson here for me is the unbelievable power of profit. Drugs are big business, and so attempts to criminalize it and fight it with the cumbersome tools of law enforcement are always going to be several steps behind, even with the ridiculously aggressive laws we’ve come up with in the past few decades to fight the “war on drugs.” Now, I’m not saying that because law enforcement is bad at fighting this war, we should give up. I agree with this further point, but it’s not the focus of this post. All I’m trying to say is that the ingenuity that drug money unleashes is really hard to beat.

I mean seriously.  Narcotraffickers use makeshift submarines to bring their product to market. Yea, you heard me, submarines.

22
Mar
10

interesting confirmation

In this post I made the claim that we are morally obligated to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses against their will because of the special nature of their religious prohibition.

In this article, the scenario I described as optimal took place. In other words, a family refused to allow their child to be saved with a blood transfusion, but would allow the surgery if the judge ordered the medical team to do it anyway. That’s what happened. The judge ordered the surgery and the parents said they had a clean conscience and that the judge and the medical team would have to answer for their wrongdoing (performing a blood transfusion). But since the doctor who performed the surgery was Hindu, he probably wasn’t that worried about the Jehovah’s Witness view of what constituted damnation.

22
Mar
10

China and Google

I don’t really know too much about this controversy, but what I do know kind of boggles my mind.

It seems like google is willing to seriously damage is growth potential in order to protest Chinese censorship. It’s not that I’m unimpressed by google’s stand (if this is really what’s going on) so much as baffled that a modern company would make such a decision. China, as everyone always remarks, is a very large market and it seems somewhat suicidal to just leave. In fact, it’s worse than that, because google is not planning on leaving now only to come back later, or if they are, they need to take a second look. The Chinese government has done a good job of characterizing google’s intransigence in nationalistic terms; as an expression of cultural imperialism.

This seems like nonsense. If US consumers stop buying Toyotas, would relations sour between Japan and the US? Possibly, but companies are almost never linked to their home governments in the way that the Chinese are doing. Google is not the U.S. government.

However, then I read that google was giving search data from China to U.S. intelligence agencies. Whoops…

It’s hard to know what’s true and false here, but I would be disturbed to find out that google was giving up information to U.S. authorities, either of their own accord or under direction of the U.S. government. It’s just not a smart way to approach the China problem (if there is even a problem).

Anyway, the lesson is that I really should have bought a bunch of Baidu stock like 3 months ago, because they this news has sent their stock about 25% higher (they are the #1 search engine in China already, but now they won’t face google as a rival).