Alex Pappademas

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Say what you will about Bill Simmons, but the guy knows talent, as he abundantly proved when staffing up Grantland, his ESPN pop-culture-and-sports combo, which has gone far deeper in analysis of screen and sound and society than anyone had a right to expect. It’s been feared that an exodus of gifted people would follow his ugly divorce from the company, and that now seems to be the case. Sad, but even before the industry itself became fragile, the dynamic of the masthead always was. Erase the wrong name and others magically disappear.

Alex Pappademas, one the really perceptive critics there, has written about Aaron Sorkin’s new Steve Jobs dreamscape. An excerpt:

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin takes interactions and confrontations that occurred at different points in Jobs’s life, or not at all, and reimagines them as having taken place backstage in the minutes immediately before Jobs unveiled one of three new products — Apple’s Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the original Bondi blue iMac G3 in 1998. (Each sequence gets its own distinct look: grainy/nostalgic 16-millimeter for the Mac, sumptuous 35 for the NeXT, warts-and-all digital for the iMac.) The film’s more-than-a-little-bit cockamamy sub-premise is that on each of these crucially important days, Jobs also found himself scheduled for back-to-back come-to-Jesus meetings with people he’d wronged on his way to the top, including Lisa and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, putting deepening wrinkles of hurt in his Fozzie Bear rumble); and the company’s third CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, perfectly wry and wounded).

Sculley shows up as a slayable father figure/level boss in all three chapters, even though in real life he and Jobs rarely spoke after spring 1985, when Jobs fought Sculley for control of Apple’s board and lost. And while Mac marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) did follow Jobs from Apple to NeXT and was famously one of the few people who could stand up to him and live to tell the tale, she’d moved on to a position at General Magic and then to retirement by the time the iMac hit. I’m also going to assume Hoffman was more than the sassy-but-supportive Sorkin work-wife figure this movie makes her out to be. Of course, Sorkin has freely admitted that if any of these scenes actually happened the way he’s written them, it’d be news to him — but when you see the movie, chances are you’ll understand exactly why he played so fast and loose with history. By tossing out the biopic beat sheet and zeroing in on the parts of Jobs’s business that most resembled show business, Sorkin has moved Jobs’s story into his own comfort zone. It’s now a three-act backstage-panic comedy/melodrama about a brilliant, work-fixated white guy whose genius far exceeds his emotional intelligence and the people who can’t help but love him anyway.•

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Grantland has many fine writers and reporters, but the twin revelations for me have been Molly Lambert and Alex Pappademas, whom I enjoy reading as much as anyone working at any American publication. The funny thing is, I’m not much into pop culture, which is ostensibly their beat. But as with the best of journalists, the subject they cover most directly is merely an entry into many other ones, long walks that end up in big worlds. 

Excerpts follow from a recent piece by each. In “Start-up Costs,” a look at Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire, Pappademas circles back to Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel, Microserfs, a meditation on the reimagined office space written just before Silicon Valley became fully a brand as well as a land. In Lambert’s “Life Finds a Way,” the release of Jurassic World occasions an exploration of the enduring beauty of decommissioned theme parks–dinosaurs in and of themselves–at the tail end of an entropic state. Both pieces are concerned with an imposition on the natural order of things by capitalism.


From Pappademas:

Microserfs hit stores in 1995, which turned out to be a pretty big year for Net-this and Net-that. Yahoo, Amazon, and Craigslist were founded; Javascript, the MP3 compression standard, cost-per-click and cost-per-impression advertising, the first “wiki” site, and the Internet Explorer browser were introduced. Netscape went public; Bill Gates wrote the infamous Internet Tidal Wave” memo to Microsoft executives, proclaiming in the course of 5,000-plus words that the Internet was “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.” Meanwhile, at any time between May and September, you could walk into a multiplex not yet driven out of business by Netflix and watch a futuristic thriller like Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic or Virtuosity or The Net, movies that capitalized on the culture’s tech obsession as if it were a dance craze, spinning (mostly absurd) visions of the (invariably sinister) ways technology would soon pervade our lives. Microserfs isn’t as hysterical as those movies, and its vision of the coming world is much brighter, but in its own way it’s just as wrongheaded and nailed-to-its-context.

“What is the search for the next great compelling application,” Daniel asks at one point, “but a search for the human identity?” Microserfs argues that the entrepreneurial fantasy of ditching a big corporation to work at a cool start-up with your friends can actually be part of that search — that there’s a way to reinvent work in your own image and according to your own values, that you can find the same transcendence within the sphere of commerce that the slackers in Coupland’s own Generation X4 eschewed McJobs in order to chase. The notion that cutting the corporate cord to work for a start-up often just means busting out of a cubicle in order to shackle oneself to a laptop in a slightly funkier room goes unexamined; the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.•


Lambert’s opening:

I drove out to the abandoned amusement park originally called Jazzland during a trip to New Orleans earlier this year. Jazzland opened in 2000, was rebranded as Six Flags New Orleans in 2003, and was damaged beyond repair a decade ago by the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. But in the years since it’s been closed, it has undergone a rebirth as a filming location. It serves as the setting for the new Jurassic World. As I approached the former Jazzland by car, a large roller coaster arced into view. The park, just off Interstate 10, was built on muddy swampland. I have read accounts on urban exploring websites by people who’ve sneaked into the park that say it’s overrun with alligators and snakes.

After the natural disaster the area wasted no time in returning to its primeval state: a genuine Jurassic World. It was in the Jurassic era when crocodylia became aquatic animals, beginning to resemble the alligators currently populating Jazzland. I saw birds of prey circling over the theme park as I reached the front gates, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the site is closed to outsiders. I pleaded with the security guard that I am a journalist just looking for a location manager to talk to, but was forbidden from driving past the very first entrance into the parking lot. I could see the ticket stands and Ferris wheel, but accepted my fate and drove away, knowing I’d have to wait for Jurassic World to see Jazzland. As I drove off the premises, I could still glimpse the tops of the coasters and Ferris wheel, obscured by trees.

I am fascinated by theme parks that return to nature, since the idea of a theme park is such an imposition on nature to begin with — an obsessively ordered attempt to overrule reality by providing an alternate, superior dimension.•


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For pretty much my entire adult life, I’ve taken in at least 250-300 movies a year, though I’ve hardly watched any in the last twenty-four months. I needed a break. But a new piece of Alex Pappademas’ routinely wondrous writing at Grantland has convinced me to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Early on, the writer mentions “The Futurist Manifesto” by Marinetti, a tract that glorifies war and scorns women, before explaining how George Miller’s dystopic film reverses at least half of that mindset. An excerpt:

The key moment comes in the calm after the storm. Max drags himself across the desert, still connected by a length of chain and a blood-transfusion tube to an unconscious War Boy and his car door. He spots the wives, bathing in radiator water like nymphs at a pond while taking bolt cutters to their chastity belts. Half-wrapped in diaphanous linen, they resemble America’s Next Top Model competitors who’ve somehow escaped Tyra’s clutches before the makeover episode. You can read the movie’s politics loud and clear in the fight scene that follows, in which Max’s literal blood tie to a foot soldier of the phallocracy becomes both action beat and telling metaphor. Miller came close to shooting a Gibson-led version of Fury Road back in 2001 before 9/11 and the fall of the dollar torpedoed his budget; presumably, he can’t have anticipated Gamergate making representational parity and misogyny into third-rail issues within the core audience for postapocalyptic action movies any more than he saw Boko Haram coming. But the “men’s rights” crusaders now gnawing their fedora brims in righteous apoplexy over the thought of Mad Max’s manly iconography being perverted to serve a misandrist agenda aren’t actually imagining things. This is an unambiguously and unapologetically feminist, Bechdel test–passing sci-fi blockbuster that begins, I’ll say again, with Charlize Theron commandeering an 18-wheeled battle-dong in order to free some sex slaves and ends by explicitly linking the liberation of humanity in general to the dismantling (and, in some cases, dismemberment) of the patriarchy.•

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I would just as soon watch work by Errol Morris as by any living filmmaker. His big-screen documentaries and episodes of his former Bravo show First Person are as perceptive about human psychology as a piece of art can be. I’ve learned so much from Morris and his Interrotron about how we piece together a reality, a consciousness, in an effort to navigate a scary world, and how often deception of self is at its core. Years ago, I interviewed him, and he had a slow, plodding manner, a tortoise who could win the race despite appearances. Two excerpts from Alex Pappademas’ insightful new Grantland Q&A with the documentarian: one about the empathy he feels for his subjects no matter how objectionable they are and the other about how this ability to understand others causes him criticism.



Adams was a convicted murderer when you met him. You seem to be drawn to the type of person other people hate. It’s as if there’s something about the psychology of widely despised people that fascinates you.

Errol Morris:

Absolutely. I’ve never heard anyone put it quite that way, but it’s absolutely true. I like pariahs. There are endless examples of them. Randall Adams was a cold-blooded cop killer, labeled a psychopath. Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death — an electric-chair repairman who coincidentally happens to be a Holocaust denier.


And then Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.

Errol Morris:

McNamara, Rumsfeld, probably Joyce McKinney.


Who’s maybe not as widely and famously despised …

Errol Morris:

Not famously despised, but adjourned, discredited, acquainted with grief. A woman of sorrows. So, yeah. I do like that. I can’t deny it.


Do you have to like the person, as well? In most cases, I get the impression that you do — that it isn’t hard for you to get to a place of comfort with these subjects.

Errol Morris:

No. When I was interviewing killers years ago, I enjoyed talking to them. I enjoyed being with them. I wasn’t there to moralize with them or temporize with them, I was there to talk to them. And I think that’s still true. Rumsfeld pushed it, I have to say.


Just your capacity for …

Errol Morris:

Empathy. Yeah.



It’s interesting, though, because while you’ve generally fared pretty well with critics over the years, whenever Fog of War or The Unknown Known were negatively reviewed, it was always for that reason. Especially Rumsfeld — you got a lot of flak for somehow letting him get away. People seemed disappointed that you didn’t grab him by the lapels and shake him, rhetorically speaking.

Errol Morris:

I think there’s a whole group of people who would’ve loved for me to get out of my chair and to hit him with a cinder block, which I was not going to do. Y’know, it’s really interesting, because they made that whole movie — a horrendous movie, I think — about the Nixon-Frost interviews, and of course they changed it to make it more dramatic and more confrontational. But I think — and I could be just making excuses for myself — that there’s a portrait that emerges [in The Unknown Known] that’s very different and far more interesting than the portrait you would’ve gotten by having him walk off the set or repeatedly refuse to answer questions, which is what would’ve happened. There’s something about his manner that reveals to me much about the man. A refusal to engage stuff with any meaning is really frightening, and I think that’s part of who he is. There’s a whole class of people who love to push people around but don’t love to think about stuff carefully. Maybe it’s a different talent.•

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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There’s really no representative person who raises a 340-pound log above his head. Case in point: Andrew Palmer, the seventh strongest man in America (or at least on the nation’s strongman-competition circuit), a mountainous software engineer who moonlights by moving trees with his limbs, while performing in a surprisingly subdued modern Herculean sideshow. An excerpt follows from “Carry That Weight,” Alex Pappademas’ very fun Grantland portrait of Palmer.


There are no typical strongmen. Michael Caruso is also a microbiologist. The Bulgarian Dimitar Savatinov came to the sport after a stint as an actual strongman with Ringling Brothers, where his act, according to the web site Rogue Fitness, involved “laying [sic] on broken glass while a board on his chest had twelve performers dancing on it, bending iron bars, [and] holding and spinning seven girls on a  human carousel[.]“ Five days a week, Andrew Palmer works as a software engineer at a startup in Seattle. Before that he worked for Microsoft. He played high school football and was briefly the only 300-pound forward on the school soccer team. After college, he slowed down, gained desk-job weight. He started training for his first strongman contest — the 2008 NorCal Winter Strongman Challenge, in Concord, California — the way you might set your sights on a half-marathon. It was a reason to go to the gym. He figured he’d do it and go to the contest and get his ass kicked. Instead he came in second, just behind a more experienced strongman named Chris Grantano. That was how it started.

Palmer had some issues with depression when he was younger, and the lifting helps with that. It helps him sleep. It’s almost like meditation. It does what meditation is supposed to do — it takes him off the wheel of thought and experience for a little while. “When you’re grinding out reps,” he told me in Vegas, “you fall into a tunnel vision where there’s literally nothing but the movement. You’re doing that movement over and over, and then it stops, and you come back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m back. I remember who I am again.’”

The trick is having an existence to come back to. Palmer likes having a circle of friends who don’t do what he does. In recent months, his Instagram feed has included blurry concert photos of Echo & the Bunnymen at the Showbox and Erasure at the 9:30 Club and EMA at a music festival in Portland. Palmer goes to a lot of rock festivals, even though whenever he’s in a crowded place with alcohol flowing, drunks invariably run up to grab his beard without asking, the way strangers feel entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. Palmer likes a few beers, Palmer likes a hang. “I know guys who would never drink a beer except for the night after a contest,” he says. “More power to you, but I’m gonna drink beer more often than that. And if that means I don’t ever take top three at World’s Strongest Man, I’ll deal with that, because otherwise I could go crazy.”•


“C’mon, Andy!”:

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Saturday Night Live alumnus Tom Schiller, who specialized in short films during his two stints on the venerable show, is an odd and fascinating guy. He made one of my favorite movies ever, the 35-minute “Henry Miller Asleep & Awake,” which may be the best profile of a writer in any format ever. I also had the odd joy of waiting on him two or three times when I was younger and working in service jobs. During each encounter, Schiller affected an extremely phony Russian accent, acting the part of a caricature of a recent immigrant. It was like he wanted me to know how fake the situation was because I was in a position where I had to be polite and play along. And so I did.

As part of Grantland’s coverage of SNL’s 40th anniversary, Alex Pappademas has an excellent interview with Schiller, in which he sifts through his own late-night career and weighs in on Lonely Island. The opening:


How did you first meet Lorne Michaels?

Tom Schiller”

When I was about 17, I was already working for a documentary filmmaker in the Pacific Palisades and working on documentary films. I made my own film on Henry Miller. My father was a writer on I Love Lucy. I grew up on the set of I Love Lucy. I was actually there for the grape-stomping sequence when I was 6. And one day my father said, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy — he’s this Canadian writer, but he knows all the great restaurants in L.A.’ I thought, I don’t really care about the great restaurants in L.A., but OK. So Lorne came over to the house, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. The surprising thing was, he lit a joint in my room, which I would never do in my father’s house. I thought, Hmm — interesting, and I started hanging out with him at the Chateau Marmont, which had a lot of colorful regulars, some of whom would become the nucleus of Saturday Night Live.

Lorne kept talking about this late-night show, this comedy show he wanted to do. Like 24/7 he would talk about it, to the point of boredom. He kept asking me if I’d like to come work on it, and I was conflicted, because my then-pal Henry Miller said, ‘Don’t go work on TV, it’ll kill your soul.’ But Lorne kept painting this picture of New York, and being a writer, and working on a late-night show, and it sounded kind of interesting. Since I wanted to be a foreign-film director, L.A. didn’t seem like the place to be, and I finally succumbed and took his invitation. In the summer of 1975, I was in a little office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with Lorne. I was sitting there with him as he started hiring all the writers and cast.


You were there for the big bang!

Tom Schiller:

Yeah. We used to go to Catch a Rising Star and the Improv to watch performers. I remember seeing Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer. There were auditions, and John Belushi came and auditioned as the Samurai, which led me later to write ‘Samurai Hotel’ for him.”


“A place where I knew only starvation, humiliation, despair, frustration”:

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Viewed from inside the airtight world of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, you can almost understand why the host famously melted down for having to do a “goddamn death dedication” after coming out of a “fucking uptempo record.” You see, Casey’s syndicated parallel United States was meant to be a respite from the real and often-confusing society we actually live in, a place where no unsettling sounds could be heard, a program that could turn every living room into a panic room, a sanctuary safer even than the green room at the Charlie Rose show. As the channels decentralized and multiplied, and the vernacular grew franker, he steadfastly refused to say the word “sex” on the radio or play versions of rap records that contained the N-word. And even as the very medium that made him famous collapsed, with digital killing both the radio and video star, Kasem fought to keep the barbarians of the new normal at the gate. From Alex Pappademas’ excellent Grantland postmortem of the man who only counted backwards:

“In 1989, Casey and Jean Kasem entertained Nikki Finke — then a sharp-toothed, young Los Angeles Times reporter — in their seven-room Beverly Wilshire Hotel apartment, from which the Kasems were organizing a housing-crisis march. ‘The boss sits in a marbled-to-the-max kitchen,’ Finke wrote. ‘The boss’s wife toils in a satin moire-draped dressing room. The publicists make phone calls from the exercise gym. And the typists pound their keyboards on a priceless buffet table that seats 12.’ Later, Kasem is described as ‘more likely to be listening to a speech by Malcolm X on his cassette player than music by Miami Sound Machine.’

It’s hard to square the image of Kasem edutaining himself via the words of Brother Malcolm with, say, the story — mentioned in this Washington Post obit  — about Kasem agreeing to change his show’s chart methodology in the early ’90s in order to mollify affiliates who wanted nothing to do with hip-hop even as it became a commercial force. Kasem began basing his list on airplay data from the country’s biggest Top 40 stations rather than the sales chart in Billboard; it was probably a choice he was forced to make, but the truth was he had never sounded entirely comfortable back-announcing ‘O.P.P.’ or ‘Rump Shaker.’ You can only hurdle so many generation gaps before your ankles start to give out.

Still, Kasem provided a point of entry to the bewildering world of popular music for a lot of people, and young people in particular, who went on to love music more than he ever did. He was one of the least rock-criticky people who ever played records for a living, but he undoubtedly turned countless people into rock critics, trainspotters, trivia banks, and maintainers of eccentrically ordered personal Hot 100s. What we’re mourning when we mourn him, beyond that, is the passing of a time when a ranked list of popular songs still seemed capable of revealing something about what songs actual people actually liked.

In the time it took me to read one article about Casey Kasem’s now-widow throwing meat at her stepchildren, I watched Jason Derulo’s ‘Wiggle’ dethrone Ed Sheeran’s ‘Afire Love’ onBillboard’s Twitter-powered ‘Trending 140’ chart, which ranks ‘the fastest moving songs shared on Twitter in the U.S., measured by acceleration over the past hour.’ Now that paying money for recordings has become the jury duty of pop-music appreciation, we measure twitches of interest, flicks of the eye, spambot-team efficacy. Kasem was the voice of a less algorithmic time, and that’s a hard thing not to feel a pang about — whether you have kids, or pets, or neither.”

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Tears poured from my eyes the second I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death yesterday. You? 

Three paragraphs about the things that drives us, sometimes down, when we’ve satisfied basic needs, when we realize that we crave something more even if we can’t exactly name it, from Alex Pappademas’ excellent Grantland postmortem of the great actor and his puzzling, painful collapse from within:

“Hoffman starred in two films that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In John Slattery’s grim, ’70s-set drama God’s Pocket, he didn’t look well. It’s strange to say that about an actor who was never afraid to let the camera look upon his pasty, freckled body as a catastrophe, but this was different. He had some weight on him, and appeared to be feeling every ounce of it. His voice was a low, heartsick rumble, the sound of a hangover made flesh. Hoffman conveyed this kind of suffering onscreen better than most working actors — it wasn’t the only thing he could do, but you could always count on him to do it. This didn’t seem like craft, though. He seemed like he was playing through pain.

I wrote a profile of Hoffman once, years ago, when he was promoting 2005’s Capote. We ate lunch in the West Village and smoked cigarettes on the street. I’ve lost the transcript and the story’s not online, which is probably for the best. But at one point I remember asking him some real JV-ball actor-interview question about what, if anything, he felt he had in common with Truman Capote. Hoffman thought about it for a second, and then talked about how Capote was 35 when he started reporting the story that became In Cold Blood, and how there comes a time in every man’s life, around your mid-thirties, when you start to ask yourself, Have I done the great thing I was supposed to do? Am I ever going to do it?

I was about 28 when I wrote that story. I’m 36 now, and I think about that conversation literally every day. I sit at my desk and I look at the dry-erase board above my desk, at the titles of as-yet-unwritten things in green ink, and I ask myself that question. And I think about Hoffman still struggling with it, despite everything he’d achieved by the time I met him. Capote was his first high-profile lead after a decade or so of lauded work in supporting roles, and people were predicting he’d win the Oscar for it, which he did. And he still felt that way, at least enough that it became his way into Truman Capote. Something about that is comforting to me. Or it was, anyway.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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Retail outlets have always vanished, but they were usually pushed out by others like them that were simply run better. Now they disappear into a computer screen, into a smartphone. It’s progress and it’s better, but there’s still something vertiginous about the speed of it all. From “Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013,” Alex Pappademas’ smart Grantland postmortem about a chain store we all hated and maybe secretly loved to hate:

“Even now, it’s hard to feel warm feelings for a Blockbuster. The company was a Borg-cube dedicated to pushing big-time Hollywood product. They frowned on NC-17 movies and foreign films and employees with long hair. If you wanted those things, you could go somewhere else, until you couldn’t, because Blockbuster also frowned on sharing any marketplace with a ‘somewhere else.’ They transformed the home-video business by plowing under the competition, then failed to adapt fast enough as that business continued to change. Mourning them is like mourning some big, dumb robot that has succumbed to rust after standing all night in the rain.

By the end of this year, 2,800 Blockbuster employees will lose their jobs. There is no other aspect of Blockbuster’s passing you could really call ‘sad,’ unless you’re like me and you feel a weird chill each time you live through the disappearance of that which was once ubiquitous, especially in the physical-media-retail sector.

Time only moves in one direction, and my daughter will never set foot in a Tower Records. Or a Waldenbooks, or a Coconuts, or even a Borders. All those chains were gone by 2011, victims of Amazon and Netflix and iTunes and our hunger for convenience, which is almost always the force that makes technology’s wrecking ball swing.”


The folks at Pitch Perfect PR sent me a reminder that Andy Kaufman and His Grandmother, the otherworldy comic’s posthumous (and first!) LP, which I told you about back in May, is now available. It’s sort of Andy’s ode to the Internet, which he made in a time before the Internet existed. Typical for him. You can purchase it at the Drag City site–although it looks to be already sold out there–or you can buy it at Amazon. From an excellent Grantland piece about the album by Alex Pappademas:

“[Lynne Margulies] Osgood was Kaufman’s last girlfriend. They met in 1983 when Osgood, as Lynne Margulies, played a small role in the low-budget feature My Breakfast With Blassie, a mostly improvised My Dinner With Andre parody in which Kaufman eats and talks with the pro wrestler ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie at a Sambo’s coffee shop in Los Angeles.

They lived together, and after Kaufman died, Osgood — now an artist and teacher who lives on the Oregon coast — held on to his stuff, including the tapes he’d made in the ’70s. In 2009, she published a book of letters written to Kaufman by women who wanted to wrestle him, titled Dear Andy Kaufman: I Hate Your Guts!; through that book’s publisher, Process Media’s Jodi Wille, she met Dan Koretzy, cofounder of the Chicago indie-rock label Drag City. Osgood sat with Koretzky at a Starbucks in Los Angeles and played him some of the tapes. This week, Drag City and Process Media jointly released the first-ever Andy Kaufman comedy album, Andy and His Grandmother, a collection of bits culled from Kaufman’s cassette archives by writer/producer Vernon Chatman and Rodney Ascher, the director of the Stanley Kubrick conspiracy-theory documentary Room 237. The plummy, solemn Bill Kurtis–esque narration is by Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader; Kaufman’s friend and creative coconspirator Bob Zmuda contributes liner notes.

Posthumously assembled albums of any kind tend to be a crapshoot, even with confidants and superfans in the mix, and comedy albums don’t always capture that which is remarkable about the comics who make them. Plus, pure audio doesn’t seem like the optimal delivery system for a performer like Kaufman, whose act was so visual and televisual and depended so much on gestures and the look on Kaufman’s placid David Berkowitz face. And yet Andy and His Grandmother is a landmark. It passes the basic comedy-album test in that it’s often quite funny. At one point, Andy chats up some hookers from his car; when they offer him a date, he suggests bowling or roller skating, and when they realize he’s just goofing around and start to walk away, he calls after them, ‘What kind of work do you do?’ But as always with Kaufman’s work, the jokes aren’t the most important thing about it. The most important thing about it is Kaufman. You don’t come away from the record feeling like you know him, necessarily, but you feel like you’ve actually met him for the first time. Turns out he’s weird.”

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Much like Dick Cheney, the comedian Gallagher is an asshole with a bad heart. (Correction: Cheney was an asshole with a bad heart. He just had a heart transplant. Congratulations, you asshole!) No one should waste a moment of life writing a great article about a bigoted prop comic with a vicious streak, but that’s what Alex Pappademas did for Grantland. An excerpt from Gallagher Retires, Sort Of:

“He got bitterer as time went on. As with [George] Carlin, there was always some trigger-hippie rage boiling in Gallagher’s eyes; unlike Carlin, Gallagher never got a Mark Twain Prize, wrote bestsellers, or saved the universe using a time-traveling phone booth. Former standup comedians who went on to become huge stars despite not being good at standup comedy, according to a 2005 interview with Gallagher: David Letterman, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton (‘a terrible comedian’), Jim Carrey (’embarrassing.’)

‘It amazes me,’ he fumed, ‘that these comedians have serious acting careers.’

In his later years, when he wasn’t smashing fruit onstage, he was spraying bile—railing against gays, transsexuals, Mexicans, opponents of torture, people with tattoos, and the French, and spewing Arab jokes your most right-wing relative might have thought twice about mass-emailing even on the morning of 9/12/01. Most written accounts suggest that your average 21st-century Gallagher show played not unlike the way Wikipedia describes his 1992 laserdisc-based live-action shooting game, Gallagher’s Gallery: ‘Generally, the items that Gallagher deems broken or unnecessary, or those he simply dislikes, must be targeted.’ Reviewing a 2010 Gallagher performance in Bremerton, Washington for the Stranger, Lindy West described him spitting out the word Obama ‘like a mouthful of burning hair’ before impugning both Obama’s blackness and his loyalty to this country.


Gallagher’s Gallery video game:

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Technology enables a phenom’s talent in Alex Pappademas’ smart New York Times Magazine piece about the ascent of a young rap producer who works under the name “Lex Luger.” Even if you don’t like hip-hop, the subject and the storytelling are really compelling, capturing a young artist reflecting in the moment after the arrival of great fame. The opening:

“A few years ago, before anyone knew his name, before rap artists from all over the country started hitting him up for music, the rap producer Lex Luger, born Lexus Lewis, now age 20, sat down in his dad’s kitchen in Suffolk, Va., opened a sound-mixing program called Fruity Loops on his laptop and created a new track. It had a thunderous canned-orchestra melody, like an endless loop of some bombastic moment from Wagner or Danny Elfman; a sternum-rattling bass line; and skittering electronic percussion that brought to mind artillery fire. When the track was finished, he e-mailed it to a rapper named Waka Flocka Flame. Luger had recently spent a few months in Atlanta with Waka, sequestered in a basement, producing most of the music for Waka’s debut album. Waka had asked him for one more beat, one that could potentially be the album’s first single.

Months later, Luger — who says he was ‘broke as a joke’ by that point, about to become a father for the second time and seriously considering taking a job stocking boxes in a warehouse — heard that same beat on the radio, transformed into a Waka song called ‘Hard in da Paint.’ Before long, he couldn’t get away from it.”


“Hard in da Paint”:

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