Thursday, May 31, 2007

How hot is your congressman? And is that a rhetorical question?

You know what politics needs? A little more superficiality. The Park Bench is here to help. Here's our hotness survey of ten random members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Because we're all about education, we'll be using official legislative terms to rank our contestants. Here are the definitions:

Veto -- that's a rejection
Table -- we're setting you aside for future consideration
Move -- a formal request for action. That means whatever you want it to mean. Perv.

And here we go:

NEIL ABERCROMBIE / Hawaii 1st District

So cool, he’s the Abercrombie without the Fitch. He’s worked as a probation officer and is a member of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee. I think this means he wears a wet suit to staff meetings. His power alone makes him irresistable.

VERDICT: Move, baby.

ROSCOE BARTLETT / Maryland 6th District

I assumed, since this guy has the last name of my favorite fictional president, that he might, you know, be attractive. I was wrong. He’s stately, I’ll give him that. But not hot. Oh my, no.


JOHN CAMPBELL / California 48th District

Given the number of attractive people living in California, I figured a few of them must have made it to Congress. And I was right. Check out Congressman Campbell. I don’t know what he’s doing wasting his time legislating. He should be elbowing Brian Williams out of the anchor chair on NBC News. I’d totally listen to bad news from this guy. Rowr.

VERDICT: Move! Move!

RAHM EMANUEL / Illinois 5th District

If this guy:

Actually looked like this guy:

We might be able to work something out.


LUIS FORTUNO / Puerto Rico

Well, we can’t make Puerto Rico a state, but we can certainly let our neighbors know their representative is a hottie. And that name – Fortuno – that’s a romance novel name if I ever heard one.

VERDICT: Move indeed!

JOHN HALL / New York 19th District

The dude’s a rock star. Seriously. He really used to be a rock star. He’s got an album called Rock Me on the Water. Plus, he studied physics in college. Bald or not, this is the guy that all the other congressmen secretly want to be, but he plays it coooooool.


WALTER JONES / North Carolina 3rd District

On the one hand, he looks like the kindly, funny governor from Benson. On the other hand, his web page says that The Oak Ridge Boys praised him for supporting a National War Dogs Monument. If it had been Beck or David Bowie praising him, I could have given him some points. But the Oak Ridge Boys? No. Just no.


JOE KNOLLENBERG / Michigan 9th District

Grandpa? Is that you?


JESSE L. JACKSON, JR. / Illinois 2nd District

Hmm, let me think about this one. Young, tall with handsome eyes AND his dad once read Green Eggs and Ham on Saturday Night Live. Yeah, I think we're good here.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Grab your dictionary, heat up some popcorn -- it's spelling bee time!

There's excitement in the air. This nerd's favorite annual sporting event*, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, starts today. Thirteen year old Samir Patel is an early favorite to take top prize.

Don't forget to start coughing around your co-workers today so you can call in sick tomorrow and watch the semifinals live on ESPN between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., then tune back in for the finals from 8 to 10 p.m.

* It's a sport because it's on ESPN. That's the litmus test, right?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A good week for science and logic? Depends on your definition.

So far, this week's been good to science and logic. Mostly. Here's the skinny:

* Researchers announced they've discovered 28 new habitable planets in the last year and have gone prediction crazy like a guy who wins two dollars in a scratch off and suddenly hocks his house to buy 20,000 lottery tickets because his luck is just that good! Yup, these scientists are proclaiming there could be billions of habitable planets in the universe. Given that the universe is way big, that seems like a big "duh" but it's still pretty exciting news, especially for those poor saps on Battlestar Galactica.

* Witches used magic to control the brain of a Georgia Superior Court Judge, forcing him to support the Gwinnett County school board's decision last year to keep J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books on school library bookshelves after a parent demanded that they be removed because they were violent "and promoted witchcraft." The witches nodded in agreement, high-fiving each other while riding brooms and sywriting "Surrender Dorothy" over the parent's yard.

* Researchers determined that cats wearing bibs are less likely to kill small wildlife like birds and amphibians. They are, however, twice as likely to cry themselves to sleep at night.

* Here's where science took a bit of a hit. The Creation Museum opened in Kentucky, showing Barney and Moses riding shotgun in Noah's Ark. Not really, but I hope they consider adding that exhibit later.

Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

There are some books that hurt your brain. For me, those are usually books with numbers in them. Then there are books that hurt your brain in a very, very good way. Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is one of those books.

The novel tells the story of Blue Van Meer, an erudite high school student who has been raised solely by her brilliant college professor father since the day her mother was killed in a car accident. Most of the novel centers on Blue’s experiences at an exclusive prep school where she falls in with an elite clique and their mysterious teacher/leader, Hannah. Early on, the plot seems to have an almost incestuous similarity to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but about halfway through, Calamity Physics takes a mind-bending turn that makes you sit up, slack-jawed, thinking, “Huh, I never saw that coming.”

Although it pains me to make this comparison, especially with a writer who looks like she’s 19, has perfect hair and an IQ that would make Alex Trebek weep in over-accented French-Canadian, Pessl’s style has a decidedly Nabokovian flair. Her prose possesses an energy, a delicious fervor, that makes the reader giddy. There’s nothing better than grabbing the front-row seat on a verbal carnival ride, replete with brow-furrowing references, word play, humor and playful didacticism. For a word junkie, it’s a thrill.

At times, of course, the erudition becomes perhaps a bit too much and Calamity Physics drags just a smidge here and there, but these are minor and very forgivable transgressions – a small price to pay for a book that makes you want to start re-reading it the very second you conquer its last page.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Notre Dame versus Lex Luthor...or somethin'

Miss March Madness? Love comic book villains? Then you'll want to check out Entertainment Weekly's new Who's the Best Villain brackets contest. Vote for your favorites and see how it stacks up when the final votes are tallied on June 6. See if you can con your office mates into putting a few dollars on Mr. Freeze....

Farewell, Charles...

In honor of ascot-wearer, game show panelist and raconteur Charles Nelson Reilly, who passed away today, I give you the final scene of The X-Files' "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." It was one of Charles' finest performances and one of the funniest damn episodes of the series -- something that seems only fitting. Beware the Lava Men...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ten reasons to be thankful for Star Wars

Thanks to Star Wars, we got a million sci-fi rip-offs, some of which were good and some of which were Flash Gordon.

Thanks to Star Wars, we’ve all secretly tried to use the Jedi Mind Trick to get out of traffic tickets and move coffee mugs using the Force. I swear I made a pen wobble once.

Thanks to Star Wars, America wins the best missile defense name contest, beating out France’s Toulouse-Loutrec Missile Defense System (where the rockets, you know, just fall short) and Canada’s Maurice “The Rocket” Richard Defense System (where the rockets just go to Tim Horton’s and order a small coffee).

Thanks to Star Wars, writers everywhere learned that even if Steven Spielberg is your best friend and you shed thousand dollar bills the way other humans shed dead skin cells, God in the form of Roger Ebert will still punish you for writing a character like Jar Jar Binks.

Thanks to Star Wars, Joseph Campbell sold a few million more books and earned ten solid years of nerd fame (“Bill Moyers loves me!”) before going to the Great Archetypal Beyond.

Thanks to Star Wars, millions of Americans have a tight-pant-wearing Harrison Ford and a metal-bikini-wearing Carrie Fisher to thank for jumpstarting their collective puberties.

Thanks to Star Wars, the world has lots and lots of action figures – all of which eventually get lit on fire by your brother.

Thanks to Star Wars, children everywhere have spent the last 30 years making whooshing noises and clubbing each other with brightly colored sticks. We call these lightsaber battles – and HMOs love them!

Thanks to Star Wars, asthmatics are no longer shunned but rather celebrated for their spot-on Darth Vader impressions. Inhalers be damned.

And finally, thanks to Star Wars, we learned what it meant to fall deeply, madly in love with a movie.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lost-y goodness

In honor of last night's mind-blowingly satisfying Lost, here's a Season 3 wrap-up originally found at Pop Candy. It's in-depthy, analytical and incisive and will probably require hours of study and the wearing of glasses. Naw, I kid. It's just a funny mix of screen caps and ridiculous captions -- kinda like Tolstoy used to make. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wednesday tid-bits

Here are a few things to tide you over while you wait for the season finale of Lost tonight and polish up what to say in case Charlie finally, FINALLY, gets offed. (Personally, I’m trying to decide between, “Don’t let the Shire door hit your ass on the way out” and “Better you than Vincent.”)

* Today in The Washington Post, Tom Shales gives a number of reasons why I should probably just erase the new Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show “On the Lot” from my Tivo, including the sad fact that most of last night’s fledgling directors couldn’t tell a story to save their lives and seemed clueless about that pesky three-act structure thing. Sadder still is the fact that the always cynical and always wonderful Carrie Fisher didn’t get even more snark time.

* This past Friday, a bunch of doctors and science types got together to decide if Abraham Lincoln could have survived his gunshot wound if it had happened in 2007 instead of 1865. The answer? Yes. He just wouldn’t have been writing any more Gettysburg Addresses. Or talking. Or, you know, moving much. Still, they think he could have finished his second term. So I guess our presidential expectations have diminished just a wee bit over the last century and a half, eh?

* And finally some good news. Maybe. The Addams Family is being turned into a Broadway musical, slated to open in the 2009-2010 season. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who penned the 2006 Tony winner “Jersey Boys,” the show will include Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley, Wednesday and the rest of the gang. I’m looking forward to seeing who plays Thing because eventually, one day, I'd like to hear this conversation: “Really? You were on Broadway? What did you play?” “A disembodied hand.” "Did Andrew Lloyd Weber put you up to this?"

Also, how does a disembodied hand sing? Should I just not worry about it?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A desert, a Death Star...I think I know where Luke Skywalker's headed

According to Wired's Underwire blog, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has designed what he claims is not at all a Deathstar (*cough*bullshit*cough*) to serve as the Ras El Khaimah Convention and Exhibition Centre in the United Arab Emirates. Underwire worries that the building is too dark and forbidding to attract any conventions or exhibitions. Um, I think every Star Wars fan on the planet is going to be attracted to this place like a mothy stormtrooper to his flamy Death Star home.

MJ seemed like a deal -- it was $4,000 to meet Judge Reinhold

New York Magazine recently ran a curious story on video artist Meredith Danluck who was one of more than 300 people paying close to $3,400 to meet Michael Jackson in Japan earlier this year as part of Fan Appreciation Day, also known as Milking the Delusionals For All Their Worth Day. Danluck did it for art. The rest of the pack had no excuses. Danluck surreptitiously filmed the event for inclusion in her latest exhibition, which debuted this past Friday at the Renwick Gallery in New York. During her 30 seconds alone with the King of Pop, he made small talk with her. To quote the article:

“I like your necklace,” he said. “Thank you,” she replied, touching the vampire-teeth pendant around her neck. “Can I have it?” he asked, smiling (his skin, she said, strained as if he was “wearing a dry mud mask”). “No, my boyfriend gave it to me right before we broke up.” He giggled, “That’s so funny.”

He's charging more than a thousand dollars a second to stand next to him AND he's trying to score a free necklace off of her? Jeez. Was Bubbles outside lifting people's wallets and kicking old ladies? I'm disappointed, Mr. Jackson. Very disappointed.

Review: The Salon

Your basic comic book heroes have all kinds of day jobs. You've got your newspaper reporters and your photographers and your Bill Bixbys but as a rule, you tend not to have too many modernist painters. Thankfully, Nick Bertozzi has ended that drought with his new graphic novel, The Salon. It's 1907 Paris and a mysterious blue figure is beheading art collectors with disturbing frequency. It falls to the members of Gertrude Stein's famed salon -- her brother Leo, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude's lover, Alice Toklas, to put an end to the killings.

Bertozzi's drawings are filled with expression and life, simple but with a rough elegance. The characterizations have depth - he portrays Picasso as a crass, nymphomaniacal cross between Peter Lorre and Joey Tribiani. The ostensible hero of the piece, Georges Braques, is tall and handsome, equally fearless in his pursuit of the killer and of the perfect painting. The scenes between Braques and Picasso as they debate how to achieve the truest depiction of form and figure is fascinating. The story, which is fast paced and tension filled, also has its fair share of humor, especially in the scenes between rivals Picasso and Matisse, and in the group's trip to the circus during which Gertrude fears she won't see her favorite animals, crying, "The poster had elephants..." It's humanizing moments like these that make The Salon so rich.

For graphic novel enthusiasts or for those who just always wanted to see Gertrude Stein as a crime-fighting action hero, The Salon is well worth reading. In fact, I'm desperately hoping there's a sequel just so I can see more of Erik Satie. I mean, the guy started his own one-man religion for cryin' out loud. Let him kick some modernist bad guy ass.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Fake Josh Lyman said what??

If you were a big fan of The West Wing, you probably know that the character of Josh Lyman was fashioned in part after Rahm Emanuel, former Democratic Party poobah and current Illinois congressman. As neurotic and crazy as Lyman was, the scuttlebutt is that Emanuel outdoes him by a country mile and is potentially the world champion of artful profanity. With that in mind, you should check out The Washington Post's Reliable Source column, which recently ran a great item inviting readers to guess which curse-filled diatribe came from which curse-filled master: Mamet, Scorsese, Tony Soprano or Emanuel. Here are a few examples:

"Look, I'm having panic attacks, all right? The other night I thought I was having a [bleeping] heart attack. I puked in a trash barrel on the way over here. I haven't slept for [bleeping] weeks."

"We gave you the keys to the car, you [bleeping] crashed it. All right, we'll take the keys away for a while until you learn your lesson. You get a five-minute timeout."

"In my house, when you say, '[bleep] you,' it's a sign of endearment."

If you love bleeped out profanity -- and who doesn't? -- these really are works of art.

DVD Review: Pan's Labyrinth

Feeling too happy lately? Too rich, too pretty, too many fluffy kittens and chocolate bars falling softly from the sky? Then have I got a movie for you: Pan’s Labyrinth. Brilliant, gorgeous and guaranteed to depress and existentially confuse you in deep and pervasive ways, this movie is wonderful and haunting and should have been the Academy’s best picture winner for 2007.

Written, directed and produced by Guillermo del Toro, the story takes place in Spain, after the Fascists have taken control. A young girl, Ofelia, accompanies her pregnant mother to a military outpost where she will be living with her new stepfather, a cruel captain whose mission is to wipe out the last remaining rebels living in the nearby mountains. One afternoon, Ofelia wanders into a nearby stone maze and meets a faun – yes, one of those mythical dudes, sans pipes – who tells her she may be a princess whose family rules benevolently in a different and, one would hope, better reality. In order to prove herself, Ofelia must complete three tasks, each more frightening than the last yet still less traumatic than her life with the captain.

I’m usually a cranky movie watcher, ready to pounce on any weakness or flaw, but honestly, there is nothing that this film did not do well. The acting was uniformly excellent, especially the central performance of young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. She exuded enough strength and bravery to serve as the perfect guide to lead us through this tale. The script was taut, the pacing fast, the characters heartbreaking and real. And visually, the cinematography, costumes and set design meshed to create a world that seemed new yet real and inevitable all at the same time.

Pan’s Labyrinth left me feeling as through I’d just run the most depressing marathon of all time – and finished last. Ultimately, though, it’s a small price to pay to experience such an exceptional film.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Great Moments in World History...TV style

Let's face it. Most of us learned everything we know about history from watching TV. Here's a recap of what we know so far:

When dinosaurs ruled the Earth...they were made of polystyrene foam and set human evolution back millions of years by not eating these creepy kids:

Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, the Egyptian people were actually cerebral, banjo playing stand-up comedians whose agents built the pyramids between cell phone calls.

While Shakespeare was getting all couplet-y with the sonnets and legendary with the plays, the powerful, hosiery-clad calves of Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson were making him look like a soft old hack. Loser.

Fort Sumter, huh? Someone put Baby in a corner...and that someone was Abraham Lincoln. Patrick Swayze uses the Civil War and Dukes of Hazard fonts on his miniseries poster to fight back. Death, destruction and dirty dancing ensue.

The Great Depression? Not so depressing. Not with all those Waltons and all that goodnighting of the John Boy.

Except for the death, destruction and nuclear fallout, World War II turned out to be a merry romp led by pornography-loving Hogan, his heroes and that dim-witted Schultz, the nicest faux Nazi since Captain Von Trapp.

And the future's looking bright. Because it will be populated by apes with a penchant for lawn design, including an especially thoughtful placement of Miss Liberty.

Don't worry. Martha Stewart will save us. Or at least the well-dressed, organized people.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

BSG highlights


Just wow.

That was definitely worth the long, excruciating wait.

Also, one of the more depressing season premieres you'll ever see. I did, however, help me see the similarities between "Battlestar Galactica" and "National Lampoon's Vacation": two dads go on a really long trip to get their families to the promised land (Earth, Wally World, same thing). When they get there, it's closed and they both go completely nuts. I would have given a million dollars to see Bill Adama punch a moose in the nose.

So, where to start? There were so many highlights.

-- Mary McDonnell probably uttered 25 words in the whole episode and yet you could still palpably feel everything Laura Roslin was going through. The "don't touch me" moment between her and Adama was utterly crushing. After everything they went through to finalize realize their feelings for one another, she just slams the door with those three words.

-- And Kara's big discovery. Gotta say, you know when your stalker robot boyfriend runs away from you, you've got a bad, bad situation on your hands.

-- The flashback when Tyrol sees the explosion and literally touches the remnants of himself carbonized on that stone wall. Utterly mind blowing and played so well by Aaron Douglas, who continues to impress me more and more each episode.

-- And hey, they granted my wish. No sooner had I uttered the words, "Man, I wish they'd get rid of Dualla," there it was. Totally unexpected and completely devastating...even for someone who was wishing her gone 30 seconds earlier.

-- Adama losing his mind and Saul pulling him back. Although seriously, it's really uncool to get your robot buddy to do the dirty work that way. Not nice at all, Bill.

-- And the big reveal: I'm totally satisfied with this choice of the Fifth Cylon. I think it works beautifully and adds an incredible amount of poignancy to what happened on New Caprica. Plus, this means that crazy old Ellen was perhaps not so crazy after all.

I loved the whole thing. Can't wait for next weeks. We're all choosing sides!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Literary Classics: Jane Eyre vs. NASCAR

Few things are better than curling up with a classic tale of romance, something that fits in the pantheon of great books: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and, of course, Speed Dating from Harlequin's NASCAR collection. Yes, NASCAR. These books really exist. I know because I read one. Here's how it stacks up against Jane Eyre.

The Heroine:
Speed Dating's heroine is an actuary named Kendell Clarke who, on the night she's about to win her company's highest honor, gets dumped by her bad boyfriend and accidentally ends up pretending to be the date of NASCAR superstar Dylan Hargreave. While the plot is oh-so-Moliere, the character is all Scarecrow and Mrs. King. No matter how hard I tried to shake the thought, Kendell's mannerisms reminded me of Kate Jackson's prissy housewife spy. (On a side note, why didn't Bruce Boxleitner's character ever kill her? Why, God why??)

Jane Eyre does not remind me of Kate Jackson at all.

WINNER: Jane Eyre. Let's not even joke about it.

The Hero:
Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester is tall, dark, mysterious, moody and keeps his ex-wife locked in a tower. He's pretty much a bastard until he goes blind. But he's rich, has a big house and owns lots of land.

Speed Dating's Dylan Hargreave is tall, scarred, jovial and calls women "babe" and "hon." He's pretty much a nice guy and doesn't go blind. He's rich, has a big house and owns lots of land. And he owns a tractor.

This is a tough call but I'm going to have to give it to the man with the tractor. Ladies love tractors.

Modes of Transportation:
Whereas Charlotte Bronte's characters traversed the countryside on creatures called "horses," Speed Dating is all about "horse(s)power." And here's why that's bad. I quote:

Low-slung, red and topless. The man was a race car driver -- he was bound to go over the speed limit, and excessive speed accounted for a high percentage of motor-vehicle accidents.

WINNER: For safety reasons alone, Jane Eyre takes this round.

How long it took me to read:

With breaks for napping, eating, brushing the cat, shopping, watching "Towering Inferno," solving a Rubik's Cube, creating a flowchart to illustrate the connections between all the "Lost" characters, crafting a faux Tiffany lamp and going on a two week vacation, reading Speed Dating took me five hours.

It's my own damn fault for savoring the language and sounding out the long words, but Jane Eyre took me an entire weekend.

WINNER: Speed Dating. Damn it! Things aren't looking good for Jane Eyre right now. Maybe it'll make a comeback in the next category....

Cameo appearances by NASCAR drivers:


WINNER: Speed Dating

If you'll excuse me, I have to go call Harold Bloom and let him know the canon has changed. Speed Dating is usurping Jane Eyre. All you college students better start brushing up on your asbestos suits and sponsor logos. Forgive me, Charlotte Bronte.

It's the bark at the end that really sells it

If you haven't seen Bruce Campbell's new Old Spice commercial, you really need to. Immediately. Put the waffle iron away, put your feet up, lock the door and watch:

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nerd Man of the Month: Jonathan Coulton

This month's Nerd Man describes himself as a "musician, singer-songwriter and internet superstar." That alone would have earned Jonathan Coulton at least 50 percent of the votes necessary to clinch the Nerd Man of the Month title. Couple that, though, with a personal recommendation from John Hodgman and the fact that he's a Contributing Troubadour for Popular Science and he becomes an obvious shoo-in.

If you've never heard Coulton's irresistable pop-ish, folk-ish, nerd-ish songs, have a listen at There, you can sample songs from his 52 songs in 52 weeks project or you can try something from the awesomely titled "Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms." Peruse the song titles and you know any purchase is going to be well worth the price. You've got "Ikea." You've got "Re: Your Brains" in which a zombie plaintively asks his victim to open the door and acquiesce to a perfectly reasonable brain eating request. And you've got the popular favorite "Skullcrusher Mountain," which features these brilliant lyrics:

I made this half-pony half-monkey monster to please you
But I get the feeling that you don’t like it
What’s with all the screaming?
You like monkeys, you like ponies
Maybe you don’t like monsters so much
Maybe I used too many monkeys
Isn’t it enough to know that I ruined a pony making a gift for you?

Seriously, who can resist that? Not the folks here at The Park Bench, that's for certain. And if you can't get enough of Jonathan "Mr. May" Coulton, don't forget to check out this very amusing interview with this "geek and postmodern digital pioneer" in Psychology Today. It's got a picture of Coulton AND his cat. Bonus!

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Dear Charles letter

Dear Charles Eames, I'm afraid we must part. Your impish grin and fiberglass molds are no longer enough for me. I've met a new artist, someone closer to my age and not dead. His name is Banksy. He uses spray paint and stencils to make brilliantly satirical graffiti art -- everything from policemen kissing to rats spilling toxic chemicals to Death as a smiley face. I'm sorry, but I've decided to make him my new favorite artist. Plus he's British and you weren't and you know how the British always win these things. I hope you can forgive me and I hope you'll still let me sit in your chairs. I know you'll find a better 30-something, Midwestern fan soon. Hugs and kisses, The Park Bench.

Yes, I've broken up with my former favorite artist and have now become a devotee of Banksy who was the subject recently of a New Yorker profile.

Take a little on-the-streets gallery tour and see the work of my new art love, won't you?

Photos from and

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Men of the Discovery Channel

Here's what I love about the Discovery Channel: I can spend an entire Saturday afternoon sprawled out on the couch, eating cookies and watching Mythbusters and totally justify it because it's "educational television." Also, the box of cookies I ate was low-fat, so I can justify that too. (And no, quantity doesn't matter when they're low-fat. No, really, it's true. I learned it on TV.)

For my money, no one gives me better bang for my nerd buck than the Discovery Channel. Week after week, they provide me with compulsively addictive television that expands my knowledge of completely worthless facts -- and I mean that as a total compliment.

Take Mythbusters, for example. The two hosts, Jamie and Adam, go out and try to prove or disprove popular urban myths. As a result of blowing things up or building hovercrafts or trying to break out of prison with salsa, they teach their audience some pretty cool things. For example, I like to know that vodka won't kill bees. It will only make them drunk -- and Russian. I like to know, too, that if someone shoots at me while I'm swimming, the water will slow the bullet. And I like to know that even though it looks really cool, you shouldn't try to ride a giant inflatable raft out of an airplane in mid-flight.

I also like to spend considerable time during the commercial breaks wondering which of the two hosts, Jamie or Adam, would be more fun to be trapped on a deserted island with. Obviously, we would not be trapped for very long because they both could build turbine engines with coconuts and gliders with palm fronds and engineer our great escape within hours of arrival, but still, I wonder. (I'm pretty sure the answer is Adam.)

Another great afternoon killer is Man vs. Wild, although I will admit that when host Bear Gryll starts whining about being disoriented and dehydrated and lost, I start rooting for "Wild" to win. The basic premise of the show is that Bear gets dropped into the middle of a desolate, rough environment with no gear, no tools and "nothing but his wits" and then has five days in which to get himself back to civilization. Um, also they drop him there with a camera guy carrying some Snickers and a cell phone, but he's not allowed to help unless Bear is actually being eaten by something. As much as Bear grates on my nerves sometimes (not even the British accent can save him), the scenery is gorgeous and I have learned a lot of fascinating survival skills that will come in handy if I ever venture beyond the interstate. For example, you can build yourself a warm bed in the wilderness by making a fire, putting rocks in the fire and then burying the rocks with sand. It's like nature's little chunky, electric blanket -- it's going to rearrange your vertebrae by morning, but it'll keep you toasty.

The very best way to spend a weekend with Discovery though is to spend it with Mike Rowe, the tall, funny opera singing host of Dirty Jobs. If you've never seen the show, it involves Mike taking on filthy tasks like collecting garbage from underground storm gutters, vivisecting dead whales, working on a methane-powered farm or scampering around in sewers. While the set-up of the show is great, it's really Rowe with his stunted gag reflex and ability to make even the most disgusting tasks look bearable who makes the show what it is. And when his job is really, really bad, he lets you know. Whether it's bitching at the woman who raised ill-behaved monkeys in Africa or the dudes who taught him to hunt for catfish by shoving his hand into dark underwater holes, Mike's not above unleashing the snark on people. And for that I love him. And for giving me three such entertaining, mind-expanding, ridiculously addictive shows, I love the Discovery Channel, too.

There's probably a Roswell connection

Poor Scotty....Somewhere in New Mexico, a teenage boy is rubbing the dust off Jimmy Doohan's little ash-filled cannister and logging onto Ebay for the biggest financial score of his life.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Girl Nerds in History: Katharine Hepburn

There are Girl Nerds in History and then there are Kick-Ass, Awe-Inspiring, Culture-Changing Girl Nerds in History. Katharine Hepburn is one of the latter. And for the next several days, Turner Classic Movies will be celebrating what would have been Kate's 100th birthday on Saturday with a selection of some of her finest films.

Kate Hepburn earns one of the top spots in the Girl Nerd Pantheon for one simple reason: she never, ever cared what anyone else thought about her. Literate, cheeky, bold, talented and mightily intimidating, Hepburn acted the pants off of everyone else around her -- and then proceeded to wear those pants in an early act of feminism that was both subtle and effective. By wearing trousers when few other women would, she managed to tell the world to piss off -- and as an added bonus, never had to worry about getting a snag in her hosiery. No one could tell her what to do. Except Spencer Tracy, but seriously, who could blame her? One look from that guy and I'd have buckled too. He had that voice, that stare. Margaret Thatcher would've been bringing him his tea and slippers every afternoon.

If you aren't that familiar with Hepburn's work or are convinced that she and Cate Blanchett are the same person, then be sure to check out Turner Classic Movies tonight, tomorrow and Saturday. If you can only fit in one or two of her films, then please carve out time for Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. The latter, co-starring James Stewart and Cary Grant, showcases all the reasons why he was the perfect foil for Hepburn, even more so than Tracy. He managed to bring out her humor and elicit a softness that few other actors ever could.

Now go buy some Ben and Jerry's, dig out the comfy jammies and get ready for a quality movie-watching weekend. If you don't, Spencer Tracy will kick a puppy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The better way to get in shape...

There are two things you should know: first, I am incredibly lazy when it comes to physical exertion. And two, our house is a shrine to every video game system ever invented in the history of the world including a thousand-year-old abacus that plays Pong.

Imagine my excitement then when I stumbled upon the Fit Gamers & Fitness Gaming Community over at LiveJournal. They're a community full of gamers dedicated to getting fit through gaming. That means burning calories with sweat-filled minutes of Dance, Dance Revolution and game after game of Wii Sports, among others. I was so thrilled with this idea that I went and pestered the community's founder, known on LiveJournal as Skylark, and asked her a few questions about this gaming group. Here's how it went:

How did you come up with the idea?

I was feeling a little, well, fat and unmotivated one day when I came across a game in my room that was collecting dust. It was EyeToy:Kinetic, a game that I used to enjoy. The idea of the game is to work alongside a virtual trainer and spend 12 weeks getting into shape. I wanted to see if others would join me in this 12 week regime and so created gamingworkout, promoted it in various gaming communities and, well, that was that really! I kept wondering if, like gaming, exercising would be more fun with other people. So it was born out of boredom, my love for gaming and my total lack of motivation.

What's the response been like?

Initially it was a little slow. Two weeks later we had 30 members and a nice little community that was gradually building up. I did have a few people scoff at the idea in various places that I promoted it, but most people saw through the inital wtf-factor, saw that it made sense and joined up. Since we've been on the Livejournal Spotlight however we've gone from strength to strength and every other introductory post has "Thank you for creating this community, this is a GREAT idea!" at the bottom of it.

How's it been working for people? Have people had good results?

I've heard so many stories about how they've lost up to 70lbs through "Gamercising!" A lot of people have been motivated by the community itself to dust off their dance mats or even buy new equipment just so they can join in and get fit through gaming! The community itself hasn't been around long enough to tell you that so-many-people have lost weight and gotten fit, but from what I've gathered one or two people have stuck to a routine for the past 3 weeks and are really feeling the changes in their level of fitness already! If you were to ask me the same question next month I'm sure I'd be able to tell you more!

What are some of the best games for exercising?

Everyone is different, and each person benefits from different kinds of exercise. The majority of weight loss has been apparent when people play on their DDR mats at least 3 to 4 times a week. It's a very energetic game and really gets the blood pumping! I wouldn't go as far as saying it's a very good cardiovascular workout, but it's not far from it! So for weight loss I'd say get out the DDR mat and get dancing! It's easy, it's fun and it works!

For toning up and shaping your body - or even working on weight loss in specific areas - then games like Yourself!Fitness and EyeToy:Kinetic are probably more suited as they aim for that goal. However some people find those games boring so really it's finding a game that matches what you're aiming for. Some people love Wii:Sports for their upper body as well as games like EyeToy:Play. But, as I said above, it really depends on what you're aiming for!

Are people in the community pretty supportive of each other?

Very! A lot of "Keep up the good work!" and comments of the like are posted daily. Whenever someone asks for tips/advice you can be assured there will be at least one reply. Very nice, friendly community with very nice, friendly members.

What would you say to encourage someone to give gaming workouts a try?

If you're a gamer like myself who finds it difficult to shift those extra few pounds, who can't afford to go to a gym (and who really doesn't want to) then a gaming workout is definitely something you should consider. It's fun, it's easy to fit into our daily lives (hey, if you can spend 30 mins a day on World of Warcraft then you can spend 30 mins a day Gamercising!) and it WORKS, which is the main thing. If you're looking for tips/advice or a kick up the bum then our community is also a place you might want to check out!

A curious coincidence

To hell with you, Woodward and Bernstein. The Park Bench has uncovered a disturbing political conspiracy of its own. The evidence? Here is a picture of Kevin McDonald, Canadian humorist formerly of Kids in the Hall:

Aaaaand here's Nicolas Sarkozy, new president of France:

If this political switcheroo means Dave Foley will be France's new Minister of Awesomeness, then I'm one hundred percent behind the Franco-Canadian cover-up. Of course, this also means Yakov Smirnov will be staging a coup at the Kremlin next month.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Best Sci-Fi Friends Forever

Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch blog asked its readers to name the top 15 sci-fi characters and creatures they'd most like to spend time with. The answers, my friends, are intriguing:

Voters gave the friendship thumbs-up to the Satellite of Love crew from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I say "hell yes" to this one. I wanted to be imaginary friends with Mike, Crow, Servo and the rest of the gang so much that in college my pals and I drove 15 hours to Wisconsin to go to an MST Convention where we dressed up like Torgo and crashed a wedding at the Radisson. Good times....

No surprise that the voters also named the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. This is a good call, much better than befriending the folks of the Kirk era. You know why? If you were Kirk's friend, you'd be cinching up his girdle every day like he was Scarlett O'Hara. Also, the 1701-D has that bald panther of love, Jean-Luc Picard. "Hubba" and then "hubba" once more.

Jabba the Hutt made it onto the list. I don't understand his one. You'd have slime trails all over your hardwood floors every time he came over. I going to assume people voted for him because they thought metal-bikini Princess Leia was included in the package.

Bender from Futurama made the grade. Makes sense. You'd always have a tasty alcoholic beverage at hand.

I almost melted from the cuteness when I saw Gizmo from Gremlins on the list. As a kid, I really wanted a Gizmo. I think it was that little purring, chirping, cooing thing he did. Also, he was a dangerous bad boy. Shower him with an accidental wet sneeze and leave the blinds half open and you've got a sharp-toothed little killer with the saucy charm of Hannibal Lecter on your hands. Scary but tantalizing, like a younger, undead Keith Richards.

My Mulder and Scully action figures were pleased to see that life-sized Mulder and Scully were on the list too. See, this would be a tough call for me because I'd start out being friends with Mulder and Scully but then I'd get jealous of Scully 'cuz of Mulder bein' so cute and all and then I'd start spreading lies about her and hiding her shoes and putting glue in her shampoo bottle and kicking her in gym class. And then she'd shoot me. But she'd miss the vital organs and while I was recovering, Mulder would make out with me from pity. And I'd be cool with that. Not that I ever thought about that one....

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Don't Let The Man Get You Down -- Preserving Your Nerd Nature in the 9 to 5 World

Guest columnist Moggy tackles a topic many of us have faced: how do we survive the 9 to 5 world yet still maintain your individuality -- your nerd nature, if you will? She gives us a welcome hint....

Lately I’ve been struggling with some big life decisions. You know, the kind of things you have to think about when you’re an adult and there are bills to be paid and the future to be considered: should I keep my safe job or jump into something crazy with both feet? Should I keep the secure pension plan or do something I’ve always wanted to do?

It’s been keeping me up at night and there have been more than a few tears shed. And then, last night, at about 2 a.m., as I was queuing up the next episode of Frasier on DVD, I realized something: I realized I’m afraid that if I pass on the risky but exciting opportunity, I’ll begin a slow slide into, well, ordinary.

“Oh my god,” I thought, as the remote slid out of my hands and bounced off the cat. “I’m afraid of losing my nerddom! I don’t want to be normal!” It was a horrifying thought.

See, my day job right now is in the government; I’m an editor for a large department. There are dusty plants, grey cubicles, and fluorescent light fixtures. It’s the very epitome of not-exciting. It pays well, yes, and my co-workers are nice, but it’s dull. There’s not much of the nerddom around here. What if I stay here and my character slowly gets sapped away into the brown carpet and cubicle walls?

At about 3 a.m., I fell asleep with tears in my eyes and woke up this morning looking like I’d gone ten rounds with a Rancorsome angry Ewoks?...Sauron, maybe?…a particularly pissy Dalek.

I came to work, sat down in my office, and sighed. And then I looked around.

I looked at my lava lamp, my large bamboo with the stuffed toy koala hanging on it, my Hurley action figure from Lost, my many pictures and postcards, my APE/SPX convention badges, my Casper the Friendly Ghost paper holder, my gargoyles, my Bumble and Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph, my Boston Red Sox stuff, my life-sized Gandalf cardboard cut-out (who’s wearing my Smithsonian Air and Space Museum bucket hat), my rainbow disco ball, my wind-up robotic mice (who live under my visitor’s chair), my Zen garden, my Edward Gorey calendar, my Beware of Cat and No Hunting signs, my The Gods Hate Kansas b-movie poster, my Star Wars: A New Hope poster, my Fellowship of the Ring poster (featuring Aragorn, of course), my bookshelf of lunchtime reading material (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Archy and Mehitabel, The Sparrow, Monty Python: The Complete Unexpurgated Scripts, and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy), my STS-107 patch, my souvenir Rolling Stones tickets (held on the front of my cabinet with a Rolling Stones magnetic tongue, of course), my mother’s Keith Richards bobblehead (abducted and held for ransom)…

And I realized that, no matter what happens, no matter how much pink infiltrates my wardrobe, no matter how nervous I get about the future, and no matter how old I get…I’ll always be a nerd because that’s who I am.

And that, my fellow nerds, is strangely comforting.

Book review: Suite Francaise

No matter how many history books you read, it's impossible to know what it was like for the people who were part of that history. Impossible, that is, without the first-hand accounts that somehow manage to be written and survive the tumult that surrounds human catastrophe. Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished novel Suite Francaise, which tells the story of the German occupation of France during World War II, is one of those eyewitness accounts made extraordinary because it was rendered by the hand of one of France's finest novelists.

Originally Nemirovsky conceived Suite Francaise as a five-part novel which would cover the duration of the war. The Jewish author (who had converted to Catholicism) was only able to complete two sections before the Vichy government arrested her in 1942 and deported her to a Nazi workcamp. Weak and sick, Nemirovsky was quickly sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered upon arrival, leaving behind two young daughters who protected the Suite Francaise manuscript as they ran and hid from the Nazis for the rest of the war.

Suite Francaise is an incredibly rich, unflinching study of a defeated French population learning to live side by side with their conquerers. Although Nemirovsky's voice is her own, you can trace the novel's roots back to Hugo, Tolstoy and Flaubert. The war is depicted through individual stories, finding tragic grandiosity in the stories of parents in search of their wounded sons, of an elderly man in his wheelchair, of a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war, of a self-involved artist and dozens more. There are violent passages and passages of great tenderness, juxtaposed in a way that evokes the emotional confusion of people simply trying to survive. Knowing what happened to Nemirovsky, her sympathy for the young German soldiers who occupy the French village of Bussy in the second part of the novel, is astonishing and painful. You want to say, how can you find decency in these people who are going to kill you? And it's a question that will haunt you until the novel's last, abrupt page -- a horrible reminder of Nemirovsky's life cut short, of a story that ended before its time.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Bye Gilmore Girls. I'll miss you.

You know when you host a party and everyone has a great time and then suddenly it’s four a.m. and you want to start cleaning up but this awesome friend of yours who you really do love just keeps talking and talking and not going home*? Yeah, that’s how I feel about Gilmore Girls right now. I’m sorry it’s been cancelled and I will miss them, but I’ll be glad when they go home and leave me to my dishes. Which got me thinking – what will I miss most about the show?

Pop culture references that always made me feel smart. Keeping up with a show that referenced everything from a Swedish Pippi Longstocking to Heathers to 1950s crooners was like the culture nerd’s equivalent of winning Jeopardy. If you could catch 90 percent of the references flying by, you felt pretty good about yourself. Of course, then you spent the rest of the night online trying to decipher the other 10 percent. Or at least some people did. I sure never did. Nope. Never.

The awesomeness of Lorelai’s clothes. For years, I have been torn between two secret fantasies: going on a What Not to Wear shopping spree with Stacy and Clinton and going on a Stars Hollow shopping spree with Lorelai Gilmore. Given that the What Not to Wear spree means getting humiliated in front of millions of TV viewers and the Stars Hollow spree means drinking coffee with Lorelai and being her best fictional friend forever, I would opt for the latter.

The townies. There is no troubadour in my town and Sally Struthers is not my neighbor and that makes me very sad. Since the day I started watching Gilmore Girls, I’ve been in love with Stars Hollow and its residents. I want a town square with a gazebo and I want to gossip with Miss Patty and help Michel groom the chows and buy antiques from Mama Kim and watch Luke fight with Taylor. Is that too much to ask? In suburban Michigan, sadly, the answer is yes. Damn you, Midwest!!

Kirk’s naked chest. I will not miss the possibility of ever seeing Kirk’s naked chest again. It is an image etched in terrible ferocity directly onto my brain stem and one from which I fear I will never, ever be free. The only upside is that if I ever meet Sean Gunn’s brother James (director of SLiTHER), we’ll have something to talk about.

Structure sentence backwards. Not since the last Joss Whedon show went off the air have so many sentences been contorted in so many entertaining ways. Yoda probably sits at home on Tuesday nights, scratching his head, going, “What fuck the?” I’ll miss any show that uses language as wonderfully as this one did.

* A note to all my friends: this is not you.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On Making New Friends

Today, Park Bench reader and guest columnnist Meghann describes the beauty of nerd kismet:

I like making new friends. My newest new friend was made this past Friday night. My boyfriend introduced me to Deanna after a few weeks of telling me how smart she is and how well we’ll get along. (One of my favorite things about my boyfriend is how he’ll describe a woman’s intelligence before her beauty. And also how often he tells me I’m smart.) He said Deanna and I have plenty of stuff in common like theatre, beer appreciation, and wearing glasses. I’ve dated people I knew less about. Most of all, he wanted us to talk because I am about to apply to grad school for directing, and she recently graduated from Columbia with a degree in…directing – so clearly, we have plenty to talk about.

I met up with my boyfriend and Deanna late on Friday night at a bar. I immediately liked her warmth, open attitude and humor. We had a nice time playing "getting to know you" and I thought perhaps this would be a theatre acquaintance to cultivate. And then something happened that cemented our burgeoning friendship. At a lull in the conversation, my boyfriend said something that changed the way I thought of Deanna forever.

In the past five or so years, I’ve learned that there is a moment in every new friendship where the topic comes up. Usually I will be the one to bring it up, casually at first so as not to cause alarm if the new friend is not receptive to the idea. You have to sort of slip it into conversation with an acquaintance to test the waters. I’ve had the embarrassment of coming on too strong only to find the other party repulsed and judgmental. But it’s always a wonderful feeling when the other person brings it up first. It’s a feeling of solidarity, of knowing what you’re about. Then you launch into those sometimes hours-long conversations without rest.

Which is exactly what happened when my boyfriend said, “You know, Deanna is a huge Harry Potter fan.”

My eyes got wide, more beers were ordered, and we launched into a passionate discussion of Bill and Fleur’s upcoming wedding. I bounced my theories off of her, they ganged up on me about Sirius Black, we speculated about how long the last book will be, and spent the rest of the evening in Nerd Heaven.

You know Nerd Heaven, right? That’s the place where you are safe to discuss how much you wish the magic was real when the youngest in your party is entering her late 20s. And this past Friday night, Nerd Heaven was the first three stools near the door in Skinners on Market Street in Philadelphia.


From Tree comes news of this cool pedal-powered roller coaster in Japan:

To me, this would be one of the top ten all time amazing, exhilarating and terrifying things to do. I mean, look at this course:

And check it out -- each little cart has a basket!

The eco-friendly world of the future is going to be a very awesome place.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Conversation starters...or stoppers, depending on your crowd

Have you ever been to a party and had absolutely nothing to say? Everyone else has all this seemingly indispensible knowledge on mutual funds and gall bladder surgery and Indonesian politics that they're sharing with glossy self-assurance, and there you are wondering how many shrimp you can eat without being piggy. This scenario pretty much describes every party I've ever been to. With that in mind, here are some helpful facts to kick-start -- or bring to a screeching halt -- any conversation:

Instead of toilet paper, the Romans used sponges on sticks. I learned this in a class called "Sport and Daily Life in Ancient Rome" and it's perhaps my favorite piece of knowledge ever. It's best, however, to save it for after dinner or when you're waiting outside the rest room.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau liked to be spanked.I swear I read this in The Confessions, but I'm not one hundred percent sure. But go with it anyway, because seriously, who's going to check? Okay, they're going to check but the party'll be long over by then. Seriously, you're safe.

Casanova ended his life as a librarian. Now that's cool! And it's true because it was in A.J. Jacobs' book The Know-It All...which he cribbed from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. His book is much smaller, though, so if you're going to steal facts, steal them from him. There's much less lifting.

Opossums have 13 nipples. The perfect place to unveil that one? Yup. A strip club.

My husband once bought coffee for David Sedaris. This is completely true, and you can use this story as your own. Embellish it. Spiff it up. Add a car chase. The choice is yours!

Ten percent of all humans ever born are alive at this very moment. If you're enjoying the party, add "and the best ones are all right here." If the party blows, add "Too bad the dinosaurs aren't here to thin the herd."

I hope this improves your partygoing future!