Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable.
Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man.
In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.
Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.
Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.
Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.
[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]
4. Nathan for You
I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.
Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:
My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.
For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.
For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.
On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.
In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.
But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.
[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]
BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?
What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?
It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.
5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere
I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.
So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.
6. Tuning AIs through captchas
Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.
AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"
7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker
I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:
But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the afternoon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.
More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:
My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:
The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.
Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.
Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls.
He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.
What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.
8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus
Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.
Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.
I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.
I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."
Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.
9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights
When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.
What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.
What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.
This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.
As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.
A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?
The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.
Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.
I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.
People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.
10. Raising a teenage daughter
Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.
It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.
[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]
This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."