Saturday, February 25, 2012

You Were Saying, Milord?

It was around the year 2002 that I was forced to write a letter to the editor of the Times of London. One of the paper’s columnists, a certain William Rees-Mogg, had written that “everyone knows” that Hillary Clinton will run for President of the United States in 2004. I protested that that statement was in error, for I didn’t know that and several persons of my acquaintance (like my butcher, my baker, and my candlestick maker) swore that they did not know that either.
The Times did not publish my letter, which was just as well, seeing that Rees-Mogg was correct, Ms. Clinton transgendering herself to run under the nom de ballot “John Kerry.”
It should be noted that Ress-Mogg, the peerless prognosticator, was no less than a life peer, having become Baron Rees-Mogg of Hinton Blewett in the County of Avon in 1988.
To be honest, though, one must admit that the Baron’s prognosticating skill was really less peerless than common. Recent books by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman* and the pair of Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson** cite the research of Philip Tetlock***, who gathered over 80,000 predictions from political and economic prognosticators. The results, to quote Kahneman, were “devastating”:
. . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys . . . .
I wonder if the Baron would like a banana.
*Thinking, Fast and Slow.

**Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

***Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trippingly on the Tongue

I spent the day getting a haircut and irritated. (Pedantry note: that’s a rhetorical trope known as “zeugma.”) After returning home from the shearing, I decided to watch a DVD of Shooting the Past, a BBC drama from 1999. concisely describes the show as follows:
A US property developer realises that he has a battle on his hands when he tries to renovate a London building containing a vast photographic collection and discovers that the library employees will resort to anything to thwart him.

What irritated me about the show were the Americans—not that they were depicted as philistine, heritage-bashing money-grabbers, I can live with that—but the fact that on British television and in British movies they can’t get American voices right. And it doesn’t matter if the American is played by someone from the British Isles or by an American himself (in Shooting the Past, one by an Irishman, another by a San Franciscan) he or she is going to sound wrong. It’s as if all the drama schools told everyone playing an American (who isn’t instructed to bellow his or her lines in exaggerated Southern twanginess or alleged Nooyawkese) to pronounce every “r” as if it were as important as the last trumpet and to speak generally as if a clothespin were a permanent fixture on one’s nose.
It’s not as though British actors can’t be believable as Americans; they are—when they don’t try to sound American, don’t attempt to act the voice. For example, quite recently, I watched a DVD of Bugsy, a movie I had seen years ago. When the final credits rolled, I was surprised that the actor who so perfectly played the Jewish New York gangster Meyer Lansky (and without the Nooyawkese) was Ben Kingsley, of all people (although I had noted his name in the opening credits, I promptly forgot about him). But, of course, that was an American movie.
Cary Grant, James Mason, and Anthony Hopkins are a few other British actors who have played American roles in American-made movies and were successful—because they didn’t do acting-school American-ese, which no one in the 50 states speaks. Oh, they may have sounded at times a bit moneyed and cultured, but they never sounded wrong.
Then again, there’s the otherwise wonderful Hugh Laurie, whose comic Prince of Wales (in Blackadder) was only bettered by his embodiment of Bertie Wooster; he has so de-Britished his accent for House that he sounds neither British nor American, but perhaps a native of some yet-to be-discovered landfall in the middle of the Atlantic.
But probably the worst British portrayal of an American was perpetrated by a Scotsman—Sean Connery—who. in A Fine Madness, uttered some Bronxish babble in his role as the eccentric poet Samson Shillitoe. It almost, but not quite, makes one yearn to hear once again Dick Van Dyke doing cockney in Mary Poppins.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Life Worth Living

TSN is the Canadian equivalent of ESPN (indeed, TSN broadcasts some shows by ESPN babblers). Its website,, is one I visit for news about ice hockey. is also a good source for information, assuming you care, about the sport of curling, which, as I’m sure you know, is bocce on ice, played by guys with brooms.
For the last few days has been running a banner across the top of its home page saying, “See Commercials from Super Bowl XLVI. Watch now.” I have always thought that among the most pointless wastes of time was watching the Super Bowl’s inane, over-the-top, crass halftime shows instead of making an overdue visit to another room in the house. But while one can sigh about it, one must acknowledge that bad taste has always and will always be with us. However, this obsession with seeing and evaluating the commercials on the Super Bowl broadcasts totally eludes my comprehension (the New York Times gives out grades as for a student essay, “A” to “F”). Now thanks to (and, I assume, other websites) you do not even have to wait for the game tomorrow to see the ads.
Amazing—but perhaps this is what modern life has come down to: a rush to give hucksters the opportunity to separate you from your money.