Category Archives: Books, Movies, Television

Nate Silver, Bill Simmons, Skip Bayless: WE ARE LEGION

by Vincent Kwan

Nate Silver is taking his talents to Bristol. Internet contrarianess will debate over the significance of Silver’s move, but I think it’s relatively safe to say that Silver and his new home are an interesting fit. As much an exercise for myself to try to wrap my head around things as it is a primer for you, the reader, some summations/observations/speculations on Silver’s new gig over at the World Wide Leader:

1. What will ESPNate look like?

Silver and his staff will be operating under the domain which is now a permanent property of ESPN (unlike the three year “partnership” Silver had with the New York Times). I imagine FiveThirtyEight struck the same autonomy bargain that was offered to Bill Simmons’s Grantland: largely unimpeded creative freedom with an implicit understanding to not bite the hand that feeds them. Much like Simmons, Silver will be given the funding to assemble a dream team to staff a revitalized FiveThirtyEight that will produce content along the same areas as it did before, though, as you might guess, with a greater emphasis on sports (EDIT: “Simmons-like” was certainly a selling point to Silver. His ESPN team duties will involve becoming a regular correspondent on human Livestrong bracelet Keith Olbermann’s upcoming ESPN2 show, “interfacing” with traditional ESPN properties, and becoming a feature on ABC’s mainstream political and Oscar (!?!) coverage. It’s anyone’s guess if Silver will enjoy his “interfacing” or think of it as a chore, but all in all, it doesn’t sound like a terrible compromise for the independence he’ll be granted with FiveThirtyEight and the Brinks truck that’s pulling up into his New York apartment as we speak.

2. What does this mean for the New York Times and “Traditional” News Media?

This is the meta question journalists have been asking themselves. NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s post on her former colleague’s defection described Silver as “disruptive,” never really “[fitting] into the Times Culture,” and even stating that “a number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” When you make statements like “punditry is fundamentally useless” while working for one of the world’s foremost employer of pundits, water cooler discussions can tend to get a bit awkward.

I think Sullivan’s comments about Nate’s “fit” is key, but not necessarily about his fit in a traditional newsroom. By itself, a distaste for talking heads is a peculiar reason to join ESPN. First Take’s “Embrace Debate” mantra seems to be antithesis of everything SIlver stands for and as unsavory as sharing debate with, say, Thomas Friedman might be,  having to professionally consider Skip Bayless as an equal debate partner is just cause for self-induced head trauma. The “fit” question really is one about content. The simplest explanation for all of this is that Nate just loves sports and wants to write about it more than he did/was able to over at The Times. You can be as jaded and cynical as you want over that assessment but if you were to ask me what the primary driver behind The DecisioNate was, I would guess it’s just that he wants to write about the shit he wants to write about and ESPN provided him with the best opportunity to do that. Additionally, unlike at The Times, Silver will be the unquestioned God-King of electoral coverage at ESPN (assuming Jalen Rose keeps his nuanced opinions about the methodological soundness of aggregating polling data to himself). I don’t think Silver leaving NYT really amounts to an all-out assault on traditional news media or anything like that, ESPN is too “kettle black” for that argument to work. The move, at least in my baseless, unfounded opinion, seems to be driven by more basic, personal reasons. Silver wanted to write more about his first love, sports, and wanted to produce electoral analysis without  the threat of in-house sniping from his colleagues. And, oh yeah, the assload of money he’ll be getting from ESPN. To me, these factors seem to suggest the DecisioNate is just one guy looking out for number one rather than any indictment of the current state of traditional news media.

3. So ESPN is a full house nowadays, huh?

With Nate Silver and his TBD staff coming into town, ESPN could make a strong argument for amassing the most culturally influential collection of blogging talent in American news media. Simmons/Grantland’s ability to pull in ace sportswriters like Bill Barnwell, Chris Brown, and Kirk Goldsberry was expected, but it was its ability to lure an amazing team of culture writers (Chuck Klosterman, Jay Caspian Kang, Wesley Morris, Mark Lisanti, Colson Whitehead, even the HIPSTER RUNOFF Dude) that I found shocking. If Simmons had that pull and resources, I can only imagine what sort of murderers’ row Nate Silver will be able to compile for the new FiveThirtyEight.

Thoughts of a Nate Silver-penned 30 for 30 documentary are currently swirling around in my head, causing faint dizziness and definite arousal. ESPN essentially has all the pieces in place to create a sort of blogging think tank: jam some of the smartest and most influential people in a variety of disciplines together, and watch as their collaboration becomes the genesis for some of the best and most unique work that’s been seen in the blogosphere. Sadly, I don’t know if ESPN or its contributors have any desire to do that. ESPN is a such a tough entity to get a feel for because it is simultaneously smarter than it has to be while still finding time to drag conversation far below the lowest common denominator. The company is really nihilistic on the idea of sports journalism: it makes no judgments regarding quality and simply offers a wide base of writing to appeal to any and all sports fans. People who are really invested in abstract moral concepts like grittiness and Tim Tebow can read their Rick Reilly articles alongside the stat heads and culture junkies who tune in for articles by Chris Brown or Wesley Morris. In amassing the Monstars of the blog world, ESPN has not only purchased additional production, but also, protection. ESPN’s traditional media has been rightfully criticized for being vapid and sensationalistic, a result of stupidly believing that sports need a 24-hr news cycle. In comparison to the irreverent, agile Gawker-esque sites that routinely criticize it (e.g. Deadspin, Fire Joe Morgan RIP, Every Day Should Be Saturday), the flagship looks clunky and outdated and on the verge of descending into a vicious cycle of unconscious self-parody. But, by purchasing some of the blogospheres hottest names, they not only up their legitimacy cred by producing better content, but they put on payroll the very writers that might criticize them were they writing for another outlet.

You shouldn’t be able to purchase taste and credibility. These qualities that are usually brought out in arguments as things that serve as a counter to wealth. ESPN is making a strong case against that sentiment. As sports fans, we’re basically being offered a Xerxes moment: kiss the ring and enjoy twenty articles on Bayesian decision making in the 2014 NFL Draft. The ring is already so far down my throat that I’ve almost forgotten the guilt of bowing down to it.

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Weekend Miscellany, Part I: Matt’s Picks (Beatles Edition)

It’s a little late in the day for our usual weekend links post, but I was hungover earlier, and better late than never. I encourage you to look at this stuff with a beer rather than with a cup of coffee. I had a lot of time on my hands this week and came across some Internet gold, which mainly involved the Beatles.


Matt’s Picks

Beatles Stuff

  • “We Buy White Albums”  (from Dust and Grooves). 693 copies of the White Album in one place? It’s as cool as it sounds. Dust and Grooves has a great interview/photo-essay on artist Rutherford Chang’s exhibit of hundreds of copies of the White Album in LA.
  • “Is Jonathan Franzen More like John Lennon or Paul McCartney?” by Benjamin Nugent. A brief but deeply interesting read exposing the underestimated formal complexity in Jonathan Franzen’s writing (drawing a comparison to the underrated sophistication in Paul McCartney’s work). The article also begins with a great comparison of DFW and Franzen to Lennon and McCartney — then uses the rest of its space to explore the accuracy of that comparison. Probably the best thing I’ve read this month.
  • George Martin‘s discussions of the Beatles (available on YouTube). Martin, “the fifth Beatle” and legendary producer/musician/polymath, shares some great insights on Beatles music in a number of videos available on YouTube. This is the guy who played piano on “In My Life,” so just shut up and listen.

The Rest (Louis C.K., the Oscars, and more)

  • “Is Louis C.K. our Gogol?” by Avi Steinberg. An in-depth look at Louis C.K.’s current stand-up material, what makes his comedy great, and what it’s like to experience a Louis C.K. show in person. A great article on one of today’s most influential comics.
  • “Beer Maps: Two Giant Brewers, 210 Brands” by Caitlin Kenney. A really, really interesting infographic depicting the 210 global beer brands owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller. If you’re in Zimbabwe, settle down with a Lion Lager and check this out. 
  • “The Record Books” by Christophe Gowans. Gowans’ experiment here is to imagine “if best-selling albums had been books instead.” The results are great, and often hilarious. Gowans takes on Blood on the TracksAbbey Road, and more. Are You Experienced? is my personal favorite.
  • “‘Zero Dark Thirty’s’ Sharp Turn from Oscar Glory” by Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling. A nice piece on the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty and why it is no longer the Best Picture favorite. Also, I learned from this article that such things as “award consultants” exist.
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The Sliver Screen: Frank Ocean and the Spurning of the Big Stage


By Vincent Kwan

From what I gather, people didn’t really care for Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance. Trying, and occasionally failing, to contort his voice to meet the requisite pitches of “Forrest Gump,” Ocean’s onstage demeanor was equal parts exhausting and disaffected. It’s rare to see someone put in so much effort to be that distant, and for someone with a star as bright, and unique, as Ocean’s, we might expect a transcendence in both personality and performance. While you’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that Ocean’s performance was a good one (as big of a Frank Ocean/Odd Future fan as I am, I don’t think I have even that in me), I will make an argument that his performance should challenge us to think about the way we evaluate artistic merit. Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance wasn’t a misfire: It was a misfit.

The Grammy committee showed it was a step and a half too cute for itself, giving Ocean the go-ahead and forgoing someone like, say, Carly Rae Jepsen. As mentioned on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a favorite of mine and Erick Brown’s, the gap between critical acclaim and Grammy success is slowly closing. With the legitimacy and viability of its industry in mind, the Grammys has recently heaped praise on what might be termed as “real music,” leaving slick, saccharine pop tunes (i.e. Ms. Jepsen) increasingly by the wayside. The show has had a recent track record of anointing of real instruments (see Mumford and Sons) and real voices (see Adele), even if these real things are wrung through the same musical formula that their “fake,” synthetic counterparts are. But cynicism now meets all things autotuned, while the banjo has ascended to the throne of cultural praise. Toward this end, the Grammy live performances find a renewed importance, showcasing the industry as it desperately wishes to see itself: that behind its layers of veneer, there still exists a core of actual, talented musicians.  You might notice that the Grammys frequently goes out of its way to present artists outside of their natural context, creating bizarre artist mash-ups and interesting instrumentation as if to prove that, yes, these people can perform their songs outside of the artifice of the studio.

As someone who has carved out a niche for himself in the realms of sincerity and sensitivity, Frank Ocean might seem an appropriate choice for a winning Grammys performance. Problem is, he’s has never been what you would traditionally consider a good live performer, or at the very least, not a very consistent one. The moments he connects on live television are something to behold , but even then, there’s miles of emotional distance between him and his audience. Given the nature of his music, the remove can be an asset to his performance, but the stars of performer and audience need to align carefully. For entertainers who are known for their charisma and power, good performances are largely a matter of personal effort. For someone like Ocean, a special alchemy of artist and space are required in order for the whole thing to achieve intimacy, rather than reek of disinterest. For this reason, the model of the “sensitive” live performer is far less scalable than the exuberant one, as external considerations matter as much as the performer-driven ones.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Frank didn’t seem very comfortable on stage, and despite news that he wasn’t able to hear his monitors, the larger issue, at least to someone who’s trying to make an argument about it, is that there’s a greater incompatibility between Ocean’s music and the big stage of the Grammys. The first time I heard Frank Ocean was a Youtube clip of “Thinkin’ ‘bout You,” his breakthrough ballad that still has me simping to this day. His falsetto is every bit as piercing, but unlike his live performances, there’s an effortlessness to his voice. Ocean’s lyrics pierce through the digital wilderness, and with the same whirring organs, it leaves as nonchalantly as it comes. “White,” off of the OF Tape, Vol. 2, hits in the same way: a few verses on impermenance delivered by Frank, followed by an instrumental outro that lingers long enough to tease you into thinking he might deliver another verse. Through an electronic medium, Ocean’s songs find a new layer of meaning that doesn’t make the translation to the stage. It’s done as soon as it’s here. In real life, I may feel cheated. On Youtube, I’ll simply click repeat.

The Frank Ocean sound, perfectly packaged into clips that never stay as long or commit as intensely as you may want, is built for the Youtube video, much like that of his associates, Odd Future. It reminds me of when Lana Del Rey’s aimless SNL performance earned her the criticism of everyone from Hipster Runoff to Brian Williams. Neither Del Rey’s persona or her music was ever designed for the television, it was made for you to listen to it through your laptop speakers, over your morning coffee, eventually making you realize you had some shit to think about. For Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey, and many other artists who’ll grow their celebrity through the internet, we shouldn’t assume their talents will carry over to other mediums, nor should we assume that it was ever meant to be. Given that we consume so much of our music through the internet now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that musicians would tailor their music toward the medium. For all of the criticism Frank Ocean got for the strange monitor of disembodied legs that obscured half his body at the Grammys, it forces us to remember that watching Ocean perform is always done by peering through screens. The music adapts to its distribution, and how it translates to the stages of auditoriums and theaters should not dictate its contained beauty in other, more small mediums.


Weekend Miscellany Part I: Erick and Matt’s Picks

coffeeSaturdays in February are generally pretty depressing. Erick and Matt have some links to keep you occupied. Mixing it up with a combination of videos and articles.

Erick’s Picks

  • Beck Does Bowie in Incredible Fashion (via Slate’s BrowBeat blog). A fascinating video on two parts. First of all, the way Beck approaches David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” is simply amazing, I get chills at the 3:08 mark every time. But my underlying fascination comes from the fact that this project was produced by Lincoln (the car company). Lincoln has been engaging in a wide-ranging new ad campaign that I have started following with some intrigue. It’s full of pieces like this that certainly don’t mesh with the traditional idea of Lincoln, but I like it. Possibly more to follow on this later.
  • David Cross, “The Pride is Back” — In a tie-in to my comments about stand-up comedy, here is David Cross’s “The Pride is Back” for your viewing pleasure.

Matt’s Picks

  • An archive of longreads about the making of movies (including Pulp FictionApocalypse Now, and more), from the great people at Want to spend an entire day getting smarter? Explore all the articles/essays collected on Longform. 
  • “The Beatles of Comedy” by David Free. Free’s article on Monty Python explores their origins and legacy, offering some great insights about political correctness and taboos in today’s comedy scene vs. Python’s era. 
  • “Get Used to Deadspin Scooping Your Old Media Idols” by Connor Simpson.  A nice, quick read by Simpson that explores Deadspin’s emerging role as a breaker of some of the biggest sports news, and how Deadspin is raising the ire of some longstanding, traditional media outlets. In the wake of Deadspin’s excellent coverage of the Manti Te’o saga — which introduced Deadspin to much of the general public — this is certainly a timely read.
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Greg Smith’s “Why I Left Goldman Sachs” (I’m Kind of a Big Deal)

The new Goldman Sachs headquarters. Picture courtesy of Flickr user edenpictures.

The new Goldman Sachs headquarters. Picture courtesy of Flickr user edenpictures.

by Matt Waller

On March 14 of last year, the New York Times published Greg Smith’s op-ed “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” and it immediately made waves on and off Wall Street. Not long after, Smith cashed in on a book deal, and the 243-page Why I Left Goldman Sachs was published at the end of October (just in time for the holiday shopping season). I had read the op-ed and received the book as an early Christmas gift. I figured it’d be an interesting read – I know plenty of people who work in the industry, and investment banking is something that I had vaguely considered in high school and early in my college years.

I’m not going to debate the overall merits of the book. Most agree (see this review and this review) that it was a cash grab by Smith and doesn’t offer many profound insights. For me, it was presented a useful picture of what investment banking actually is; Smith offers some good descriptions of the trading and banking operations at Goldman Sachs, how investment banks make money, and so on. It’s kind of like a less self-aware, less self-deprecating version of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker—although in Smith’s defense, Lewis set the bar pretty high. But again, the purpose of this post isn’t to debate the book’s merits as a text, but rather to advance a theory that I developed early in the book, and which only grew stronger as Smith continued to drop strange (and often completely irrelevant) little anecdotes throughout the book: perhaps the real reason Smith wrote this book (other than to get richer) was to awkwardly (and completely unironically) try to pick up chicks. Continue reading

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lena Dunham, and our Beautifully Drunk Internet


By Vincent Kwan

If you haven’t already, take some time to read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s comments on Girls. The Huffington Post article isn’t particularly novel, nor does it win any award for timeliness. Disliking Lena Dunham’s work is like writing about how good The Wire is; so clear as to be banal. But there is one key reason why you should read it: It’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writing about Girls. He even compars Donald Glover to a black dildo (how edgy!). If there’s any sign that we are a generation in distress, it’s when the NBA’s career point leade takes time to weigh in on our vanity.

In the best of all possible worlds, this spat gets resolved in a one-on-one Lena Dunham vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar streetball matchup, AND1 mixtape style. More than most others, Kareem should understand the importance of home court advantage, and getting into an internet flame war with a princess of the social media church finds him playing perilously to his disadvantage. That said, a cageball match-up might be the only situation where I would find myself unquestionably cheering for Dunham; the thought of Hannah Horvath throwing coke-fueled tomahawk dunks on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is America’s collective wet dream.

I don’t (nor does anyone, likely) think Kareem is the most natural source of criticism on Girls, but oddly enough, I do find him to be an appropriate one. The mantra of Girls is one of collective fuckupery; it should be a comfort, albeit a cold one, that other twentysomethings out there are just as aimless and vain as we are. Kareem, on the other hand, embodies an idiosyncratic excellence; I, and I alone, stand on the mountaintop. Girls presents almost a ressentiment, of sorts. Wallowing is an exalted state, the dominion and birthright of the beautiful, white, and  privileged. It’s fitting that someone who fueled by a drive toward greatness might find the reverence of pity to be a disconcerting sign of the times.

Dunham discovered Abdul-Jabbar’s comments, naturally, via Twitter, mentioned it to her dad (because you know, generational differences), and proceeded to throw shade at Kareem for a recent guest spot on the Zooey Deschanel project New Girls. If there’s a moral to be taken from this it’s that the internet is a really big place. Only in the internet’s beautiful cultural cesspools can cross-generational battles between retired sport stars and media wundergirls occur. I hope this sort of behavior is encouraged and championed. Can you imagine Steve Largent having strong opinions on Lil B? Or Randy Moss having a regular Thought Catalog column (Please, God, let this one become true). Our generation might be an insufferable and homogenous lot, but we have a way of facilitating interactions between the entire spectrum of popular culture, and mashing them up in a way as to render them trivial and meaningless. We can, and should, take a small pride in that.


The (Anti) Product Placement in Flight

Image courtesy of Flickr user davidgsteadman, 2009.

Image courtesy of Flickr user davidgsteadman, 2009.

by Matt Waller

The ubiquity of Anheuser Busch product placement in the Super Bowl, coupled with its five commercials that aired during the game, brought to mind the controversy that surrounded the fall film Flight. Back in the fall, Anheuser Busch probably didn’t do itself any favors by asking that the Budweiser logo be obscured or removed from Flight, whose alcoholic protagonist pounds Budweisers behind the wheel (in addition to his numerous binges on other prominently branded drinks). With the complaint, Anheuser Busch ignited an interesting conversation about Flight’s subversive take on product placement, where several brands of alcoholic beverages appear prominently throughout the film without the manufacturers’ prior knowledge or approval. In addition to Budweiser, Denzel Washington’s character, the alcoholic and cocaine addict pilot Whip Whitaker, indiscriminately guzzles down PBR, Rolling Rock, Smirnoff, Stoli, and the list goes on.

As NPR’s Priska Kneely points out, Flight departs from traditional product placement in that it goes out of its way to show specific products, but in a negative light, in opposition to the traditional tactics of product placement: “Bond makes alcohol seem cool; Flight makes it seem menacing.”* Kneely goes on, “Many of the beverage companies didn’t even know their products would be featured in the film, and some of them aren’t happy about it.” That’s obvious enough, but what exactly makes this work so effectively for Flight, to the extent that Anheuser Busch publicly commented on it? Why is it that it’s not just the ubiquity of alcohol, but the ubiquity of specific brands that is so impactful on viewers? In the spirit of the post-Super Bowl advertising debate that’s sure dominate the conversation for the next week, it’s worth revisiting. Continue reading

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