We spent Tuesday “down the shore” with my brother, his wife, and their two daughters. Ostensibly, the trip was about introducing my nieces to the ocean and having a little vacation-within-a-vacation. But there were vital issues of man’s relation to the infinite that needed to be settled. So we went to the boardwalk and found that Addams Family pinball machine.

As I wrote last month,

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and pinball.”

My brother and I both love to play pinball–and this particular machine–but we play in very different ways. Like the brothers in Maclean’s sublime story, our methods say something about how we each achieve grace in this world.

You can go back and reread that post to learn what I wrote about our two styles (mine: fast and loose; Boaz’s: controlled and precise) and what they allegedly say about our ways of apprehending the world.

What’s important is that we lied to our wives and said, “You get some lunch for the kids; we’ll be over at the arcade for a little while.” Other women could have been nervous that their husbands would be heading over to a bar, or ogling teenagers in bikinis. Of course, any woman who would consent to marry me or Boaz knows what she’s in for: the NBA playoffs and occasional stops at comic stores (me), the NCAA tournament and occasional trips to see Springsteen (Boaz), and pinball (both of us).

So we walked into the arcade, headed to the overheated retro-game room (“Flashbacks”) in back, where John Hughes movie-posters adorned the walls and ’80s music played over the speakers, and we played.

It’s been years since we played pinball together, and I’d like to tell you that it was a glorious reunion, a moment when two brothers could put aside their differences and experience the joy they shared in years past.

Unfortunately, we stunk up the joint.

We were flat-out terrible in our first game. I’m talking Special Olympics bad. We kept looking at each other with that “we’re just working the bad bounces out” look that pinball players have. Both our final scores were under 10 million; a free game was at 56 million. We were embarrassed.

After that first disastrous game, Boaz said, “It’ll be interesting to see which of our styles of play comes around first.”

(Now, I don’t want that to sound like we were trying to beat each other. In fact, we’ve never played against each other. Sure, we both had final scores up on the board, but we never played with any sense of rivalry. It was all about beating the machine, not each other. If anything, we would cheer each other on when one of us would get into a groove.)

We wouldn’t have to wait long for an answer. It was on the second ball of that next game that It All Clicked for me. I got on a run where I hit target after target, sequences falling in line like dominoes. About 140 million points later, I said, “I wish that top right flipper wouldn’t stick.”

Bo agreed that it was holding me back.

It turned out that that game was only a warmup. In the third game, as my brother put it in yesterday’s comments, “Gil absolutely demolished the machine; he managed to make a life-affirming activity absolutely banal.” It was like those rare occasions at basketball when the rim feels as wide as a hula-hoop. (Okay, “THAT rare occasion.” I didn’t have too many of them, to be honest.) Every shot fell, and every bounce that could have lost a ball went my way. Afterward, we joked that the machine was saving the bad bounces for him.

At one point, I had a play that lasted so long, Boaz could’ve left for pizza, strolled over to the “Shoot Bin Laden” paintball booth, and taken the ski-lift back before I was done. But he wouldn’t have missed this run for the world.

This room in the arcade was hot, as I said, and we were both sweating pretty badly (it’s genetic). Any time the ball was held by the machine–like when Thing’s hand comes out and picks the ball up during the Greed sequence–I would quickly pat my palms against my nylon shorts. That was about it for the individual flare. Generally, it was like that feedback loop I described last month: hands on the flippers, and the rest of the body just a scaffold. A pinball machine.

I knocked out every “mansion room” and posted a final score of 450 million: second best on the machine, and probably the highest score I ever got. Jane, Amy & the kids showed up while I was finishing that game. I left the free games on the machine. “Libation to the pinball gods,” I told Boaz.

He stayed to play one or two more games, to show his older daughter what that machine is like. We all enjoyed the first Addams Family movie, and this machine has plenty of great sound-clips from it.

Me? I headed out for some pizza; it was 3 o’clock or so, and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. (The lightheadedness of hunger probably helped me clean out my mind for that zen-ball run.) Jane walked out with me, shaking her head and sighing at the general goofiness of her husband and her brother-in-law.

I told her, “I’m sorry we took so long in there. If it’s any consolation, Bo’s never going to play pinball again.”

Postscript: Half an hour later, my wife flat-out destroyed me at Skee-Ball.

Postpostscript: When we got back to Boaz & Jane’s car, there was a parking ticket on it. I said, “I’ll pay that one. It’s my fault we were gone so long.”

Between the lines

In case you’re sitting around bored this weekend, here’s an interview with a book designer who isn’t Chip Kidd.

Here’s a blog post by Dylan Horrocks (a.k.a. one of the finest cartoonists alive and an all-around swell guy who let me crash at his home in New Zealand a few years ago) on science and art.

And here’s the introduction to a new book on Leo Strauss. I found it pretty interesting, especially when it went into the east coast vs. west coast Straussians’ rivalry. It really heated up when they popped Biggie, that’s for sure.

I hope your weekend is exciting enough that you don’t read all this stuff.

Everyone’s a critic

NYTimes movie critic A.O. Scott wonders why people go to bad movies, and why the hell he gets up in the morning:

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

The Hit Factory

Since I’ve been writing about the drug industry (our magazine bowed in October 1999) I’ve been hearing that we’re heading toward The Era of Personalized Medicine. This means that, as we develop more knowledge of the genome, proteome, and metabolome (you think I’m making this stuff up?), drugs will be tailored to generate greater efficacy or fewer side effects in smaller population groups.

The drug that gets touted as the advance guard in this wave is Herceptin, which can be very effective in treating breast cancer, but only in tumors that over-express the HER2 protein. Around 20% of breast cancer cases fall into this category; Herceptin isn’t effective against other tumors.

Some pharmacoeconomists contend that personalized medicine will lead to The End of the Blockbusters, as smaller patient groups translate to a cap on your “customer” base. On the other side of the spectrum is a “mass appeal” drug like Lipitor, the cholesterol treatment that sells more than twice the dollar amount of any other drug in the world and is now being tested for benefits in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

I bring this up not because I just finished that Top Companies report, but because of N’Sync.

This morning, I read a funny article adapted from the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (not this guy). It examines how the entertainment industry faces The Death of the Blockbuster, citing diminishing CD and movie sales figures and TV and radio ratings as indicators that the niche is where it’s at.

It’s altogether possible that NSync’s first-week record [2.4 million CDs sold] may never be broken. The band could go down in history [. . .] for marking the peak of the hit bubble — the last bit of manufactured pop to use the 20th century’s fine-tuned marketing machine to its fullest before the gears were stripped and the wheels fell off.

Music itself hasn’t gone out of favor — just the opposite. There has never been a better time to be an artist or a fan, and there has never been more music made or listened to. But the traditional model of marketing and selling music no longer works. The big players in the distribution system — major record labels, retail giants — depend on huge, platinum hits. These days, though, there are not nearly enough of those to support the industry in the style to which it has become accustomed. We are witnessing the end of an era.

His long-term economic arguments and his moralizing (near the end) are bizarrely off-kilter. For one thing, News Corp. owns MySpace. The site may offer massive “niche” opportunities, but it’s going to make cash hand over first for Murdoch & Co., both little (user fees) and big (as a promotional tool for its properties).

For another, in this era where every entertainment option is allegedly losing its hit-making power, Anderson manages to avoid any mention of the Harry Potter books and The Da Vinci Code. Both of these are such impossibly massive hits — despite the fact that more individual titles get published now than ever — that they blow a sizeable hole in the concept that we’re all moving to the margins.

It’s my contention that, while there a whole lot of factors at play in the decline of hits in the last five years, I think the biggest is that almost every blockbuster movie is crap, contemporary pop and dance music is so dull that radio stations needed to be bribed into playing it, and the current generation of TV executives were raised on the awful television of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Hits might not be as big as they once were, but they’re even more important to the entertainment industry now, given the high price of failure. I’m not saying it’s right, as it tends to lead to “safe” committee-designed projects, but in the pharmaceutical business, as in Hollywood, the big hits help defray the costs of a bazillion failures.

(The Agitator has some reflections on Anderson’s book.)

More posts about buildings and food

I came across BLDG BLOG yesterday, thanks to a link in the NY Observer. The most recent post, on the shortcomings of architectural criticism, is awfully read-worthy. It explores how an art form (and again, I’m using architecture as a stand-in for other art forms) can become too esoteric for its own good:

[S]trong and interesting architectural criticism is defined by the way you talk about architecture, not the buildings you choose to talk about.

In other words, fine: you can talk about Fumihiko Maki instead of, say, Half-Life, or Doom, or super-garages, but if you start citing Le Corbusier, or arguing about whether something is truly “parametric,” then you shouldn’t be surprised if anyone who’s not a grad student, studying with one of your friends at Columbia, puts the article down, gets in a car — and drives to the mall, riding that knotwork of self-intersecting crosstown flyovers and neo-Roman car parks that most architecture critics are too busy to consider analyzing.

All along, your non-Adorno-reading former subscriber will be interacting with, experiencing, and probably complaining about architecture — but you’ve missed a perfect chance to join in.

The mention of Adorno puts me in mind of the great essay, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” which appeared in the late, lamented Lingua Franca a few years ago. (It took me a long time to find that article online after LF folded, but I dug it up on a Chinese site, cleaned up the typography, and saved it as a Word doc, which I present here.)

That essay explored the attraction of ‘esoteric writing’ of sorts, that use of academic jargon and deliberate obfuscation that (in my opinion) creates a closed, insulated circuit of theory that has little involvement in the real world. The writer contrasts this style of writing (as exemplified by Theodor Adorno) with the ‘windowpane’ style of George Orwell, which strove to be as unjargonistic as possible.

Even though I went to a theory-heavy undergrad institution, I ended up championing Orwell’s prose over the self-privileging of academic jargon (okay, maybe that should read, ‘Because I went to a . . .’). I understand that some concepts are awfully tricky and need plenty of work to explain, but if you can’t convey them to a reasonably intelligent person without resorting to a glossary of strange terminology, you’re probably just spinning your wheels.

(I’m not sure if the example of explaining the pick-and-roll to my wife this weekend applies, but that was an instance where, rather than resorting to basketball terminology, I used our salt and pepper shakers, a salad dressing bottle and a bottle-cap to demonstrate exactly what the p&r is. Then I explained to her how the Lakers’ terrible defensive rotation on the wing led to Tim Thomas rolling 20 feet for an unimpeded dunk.)

BLDG BLOG writer Geoff Manaugh also explores this idea of theory essentially having its head stuck up its ass:

First, early on, one of the panelists stated: “It’s not our job to say: ‘Gee, the new Home Depot sucks. . .'”

But of course it is!

That’s exactly your role; that’s exactly the built environment as it’s now experienced by the majority of the American public. “Architecture,” for most Americans, means Home Depot — not Mies Van Der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you’d have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan — or San Francisco, or Boston’s Back Bay.

You’d also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique — or celebrate — these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey — citing Le Corbusier — then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience: this was unanimously agreed upon by all of last night’s panelists.

Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don’t realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, can be criticized — if people don’t realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized — then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.

And no one says a thing.

I’m not sure why I’ve grown so interested in architecture and buildings in the last few years. Maybe it’s because of the sorta intersection of art, commerce, and real-world-ness (it’s a building). I should probably ruminate on that for a while.

Anyway, enjoy the article.