Wednesday, March 25, 2015

eSkeptic: "Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?"

Christopher Hitchens
There's an interesting article by Kevin Mccaffree & Anondah Saide in this month's eSkeptic, called Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?, which vindicates my long-held dismay over the observation that a belief in some sort of mumbo-jumbo is hardly confined to the superstitious primitive, and that even ostensibly highly intelligent people are sometimes capable of believing the most preposterous nonsense, and often stubbornly so. Between 67 and 73 percent of adults in the U.S. still subscribe to at least one paranormal belief (UFOs, bigfoot, ghosts, Satan, talking snakes, God, etc.)

According to sociologist Erich Goode, author of The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why It Matters, contrary to conventional wisdom, one's educational level doesn't preclude a belief in demonstrably false "supra-empirical ideas," but rather appears to moderate it. College educated people are likelier to believe in psychic healing and déjà vu, for example, while those with only a high school education are likelier to believe in astrology and traditional religion. It seems that educated people still believe in nonsense, they just believe in different sorts of nonsense. Mccaffree & Saide's article suggests that our resistance to critical thinking has far less to do with willful stupidity than a desire for social acceptance. (you can read the article here)

The good news is that Americans appear to be gradually abandoning the old religious superstitions that have been handed down to us from what Christopher Hitchens called the "bawling infancy" of humanity. According to a Harris survey, the number of adults in the U.S. who professed to believe in God dropped from 82 to 74 percent between 2009 to 2013. It's a start.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


South Florida has one of the highest densities of exotic animals in the country, with hundreds of zoos, breeders, and private collectors licensed to own everything from baboons and tigers to cobras and crocodiles. Most of these animals are safely contained and pose no threat to the public. But sometimes they escape.

When Hurricane Andrew slammed into Dade County in 1992, nearly 16,000 non-indigenous animals were released into the wilds of South Florida. Of these, 3,000 were never seen again.

Bonecrusher is a novel in progress about a wildlife officer whose love for the outdoors is tested when an escaped Saltwater crocodile--the world's largest living reptile, and a notorious maneater--stakes out the waters around a sleepy Florida tourist town and begins hunting humans.

Naturally, carnage ensues.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Bossa Nova Genius of Sylvia Telles

Probably nobody did more in the 1950s and 60s to popularize samba and bossa nova music than the Brazilian singer Sylvia Telles, who was already a star on the Latin American music scene, and was on the verge of international stardom when she was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 32, after recording her fifth album. Though many people aren't familiar with her name, she was a brilliant singer and performer who had an enormous influence on other Latin American singers, such as Astrud Gilberto.

The legendary singer/musician/songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote one of his most famous songs, "Dindi" specifically for Sylvia, because that was her nickname in Portuguese. (The word is pronounced "Jin-Jee.") The song has been recorded many times over the years, however the best version is still the plaintive and heartfelt version that Sylvia herself recorded before she was killed.

Above is a very rare film clip of a live 1967 concert with Slyvia singing two iconic Samba songs, "Samba Torto" and "One Note Samba," accompanied by Rosinha de Valenca, who was considered one of the greatest acoustic guitarists in Brazilian music.

Below is Sylvia singing "Dindi," the song that was written specifically for her by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Guitarist Rosinha de Valenca went on to record with such music heavyweights as Sergio Mendes, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, and Henry Mancini, making records well into the late 1970s. She eventually had to stop performing due to health problems, and in 1992 suffered a major heart attack that left her severely brain damaged. She lived for 12 more years in a vegetative state, finally dying of respiratory failure in 2004.

Here's to Sylvia Telles and Rosinha de Valenca, two of the amazing women of music who've made our world a better place for having been a part of it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Edmond Hawkins: Fixing Breaking Bad

Edmond Hawkins (
Edmond Hawkins is a filmmaker and visual effects artist who, when he isn't engineering eye-popping animations and graphics for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, uses his considerable skills to create whimsical claymation fantasies. He's also the pranksterish mastermind behind a series of clever Youtube videos called Fixing Breaking Bad, in which collaborator Joe Bonacci plays an obsessive Breaking Bad effects artist named "Joe Hawkins," who wants the world to know how great the show could've been if Vince Gilligan hadn't nixed most of his ideas.

"Unfortunately, Vince and I didn't agree on my improvements for the show," says Joe, in a perfect deadpan. "Fixing Breaking Bad is showing you guys how much better the show could be when everyone else just gets out of my way."

Magnificent obsession: Joe Bonacci as "Joe Hawkins"

Dean Norris (AMC)

To prove his point, the obsessive Joe presents a series of videos illustrating what the show might've looked like had he been allowed freer reign with his digital effects. The results are unanimously hilarious.  In one clip, Joe expresses his frustration at the lack of dialogue during key reveals, such as when Hank learns the truth about Walter while using the toilet.

"Hank exits the bathroom with this look on his face, and I'm like, what is going through his head? We have nothing to work off of. Is he looking for his keys? Did he clog the toilet? If I work on the show and I don't know what he's thinking, there's no way the audience is going to know..."

Joe's not-so-subtle solution? To telegraph Hank's epiphany by having lights inexplicably blaze to life in the room behind him--a technique that he uses to great profusion in other scenes as well. (In another clip, a giant lightbulb literally flares to life above Aaron Paul's head.)

In one of the funniest segments, (Fixing Breaking Bad 5), Joe uses his peculiar brand of digital magic to show several possible reasons why so few people are injured during a spectacular shootout, one of which involves an improbable vision impairment, another of which implies that Walter White (Bryan Cranston) may actually be Magneto from The X-Men. (The video of Walt levitating in his Magneto helmet is deliriously funny.)

To date, Hawkins has created six episodes of Fixing Breaking Bad, each one funnier than the last. There are also two other stand-alone spoofs, Walter White is Doing Just Fine, in which Hawkins seamlessly blends a moment from Breaking Bad with Malcolm in the Middle; and Walt Tries the Neighbor Trick Again, a twisted spoof of the scene in which Walt asks his neighbor, Becky, to check on the house. Only this time, things end a little differently.

One thing that makes Fixing Breaking Bad so good are the brilliant digital effects, which Hawkins created with the assistance of a team of digital artists: Immanuel Morales, Hugo Marmugi, David Eber, Randy Krueger, Matt Gaston, and Chris Scales. The other thing is Bonacci, who plays the fictional Joe Hawkins with the kind of delusional certitude that could only have come from having dealt firsthand with a few real-life crackpots.

I don't want to spoil the fun by saying too much. Just go watch the videos. They're funny as hell. (And if you haven't yet seen season five of Breaking Bad, be forewarned: there may be spoilers!)




Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Dukes of Heisenberg

Breaking Bad: Hazzard County?
According to the Multiverse theory, there are an infinite number of parallel universes, containing every possible permutation of what is and what could be. In one of these worlds, the dinosaurs didn't go extinct. In another, Hitler became a painter. And in yet another, people are clicking over to AMC every Sunday night for a weekly fix of their favorite comedy, The Dukes of Heisenberg.

Ah, the eighties! It was a great time for redneck buffoonery, the most popular exponent of which was the The Dukes of Hazzard, which ran from 1979-1985 on CBS. Now, a clever Youtuber named Citizen Schwartz has decided to show us what Breaking Bad might've looked like had Walt and Jesse been the protagonists of a 1980s action/comedy. The result is a perfectly authentic "title sequence" that imbues television's most intense dramatic series with the joyful witlessness of a Smokey and the Bandit movie. I don't know who "Citizen Schwartz" is, but I hope we'll be hearing more from him. This is hilarious.

Monday, September 30, 2013

13 Best "Breaking Bad" Parodies

The blazing comet that was Breaking Bad has finally passed out of our orbit. The dreaded final episode has come and gone, and we have survived. For some, the show's ending was akin to the death of a loved one. It was certainly wrenching for the actors, as evidenced in this video of the great Jonathan Banks's final day on the set.

It may seem silly to get emotional over a TV show, but Breaking Bad was special. It achieved a rare level of greatness that made us forget we were watching a TV show. It was to television what Conrad was to literature, and what Chinatown was to cinema: a dark gem of elliptical brilliance, stunning and unforgettable.

 "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
- Vince Gilligan, quoting Dr. Seuss

In keeping with the tradition of an Irish wake, often celebrated with laughter as much as tears, I offer the following collection of the 14 best Breaking Bad parodies on the Interwebs. That few shows have been so frequently or lovingly lampooned is a measure of its impact on our popular culture, and of the size of the hole it will leave in our hearts.


The Sitcom that ought to be: Huell's Rules (Image: Funny or Die)

One of the great things about Breaking Bad is that it doesn't have a single superfluous or disposable character. Each character serves a vital emotional or structural function in Vince Gilligan's diabolical coiled-rattler scripts, and they are all so authentically written and acted, we feel as if we know them. One of the most memorably amusing characters is the laconic, unflappable Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford), hulking bodyguard to the series' affable, morally bankrupt comic relief, attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Huell's Rules is a faux teaser for a non-existent sitcom that appears to take place entirely within the safe house where Huell has been permanently ensconced for his own protection by DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steven Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada). In this short, blazingly brilliant spoof, Crawford--a former standup comedian--reprises his role as the hapless Huell to hilarious comic effect. This is my favorite of all the Breaking Bad parodies not only because it's the funniest, but because it could actually work as a real sitcom! If Crawford doesn't get his own comedy series after this, there is no God.

If it's a popular movie or TV show, The Simpsons have probably lampooned it. From Cape Fear to Breaking Bad, few exponents of American popular culture have escaped an affectionate ribbing by way of America's most surreally dysfunctional family. The above couch gag, from The Simpsons episode "What Animated Women Want," spoofs a montage from episode 8 of the 5th season of Breaking Bad, "Gliding Over All," in which ex-chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), cook up a batch of their legendary 99% pure blue crystal meth to the song Crystal Blue Persuasion by Tommy James and the Shondells. Only here, the "blue" refers to Marge's blue cupcakes!

Sacha Proctor is a criminally brilliant editor and filmmaker who has worked the lunatic treason of turning the world's darkest and most intense television series into a goofy 90s sitcom. From the cheery, oversaturated color to the surgically-precise laughtrack, Proctor has created a subversive comedy masterpiece. AMC should include all nine episodes of this with its Special Edition boxed set.

Edmond Hawkins is a filmmaker and digital artist who, when he isn't engineering eye-popping animations and graphics for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, creates whimsical claymation fantasies and does impossibly clever spoofs. His Youtube series, Fixing Breaking Bad, isn't technically a parody of the show, but it is brilliant. The series stars co-writer Joe Bonacci as "Joe Hawkins," a frustrated Breaking Bad digital effects artist who is convinced that the show would be much better if everyone would just get out of his way. To this end, he demonstrates how certain scenes would've looked had he been allowed to work his special brand of magic. The crackpot results are unanimously hilarious. To date, Hawkins and Bonacci have created six episodes of Fixing Breaking Bad, each one funnier than the last. 

The ingenious Edmond Hawkins (Fixing Breaking Bad) clearly loves the iconic AMC series, otherwise he wouldn't expend so much of his considerable skill creating perfect parodies such as Walter White is Doing Just Fine. This short spoof makes delirious sport of a scene from season 5, episode 15, "Granite State," in which our favorite sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman, inquires about Walter White's state of mind. What follows is a moment of sublime comic genius, thanks to a smidgeon of clever post work.

Ah, the eighties! On television, it was a great time for redneck buffoonery, the most popular exponent of which was the CBS action/comedy, The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985). A clever Youtuber named Citizen Schwartz decided to show us how differently Breaking Bad might've turned out had it been created as a comic spinoff of that show. The result is a brilliantly authentic "title sequence" that imbues television's most intense dramatic series with the joyful witlessness of a Smokey and the Bandit movie.

I like Conan O'Brien. When TBS offered him his current show, he initially turned it down because it would mean bumping George Lopez to a later time slot, and he didn't want to do to Lopez what NBC had previously done to him. Conan only took the gig after a personal intervention by Lopez himself on behalf of the network. So yeah, Conan's a standup guy. He's also very funny. The only problem with Conan is that his bigger-than-life stage presence and merciless, self-imposed geekiness sometimes obscures the fact that he's one of the best comedy writers in the business. A perfect example is the hilarious video spot he recently ran during a special "Breaking Bad" episode of Conan. It's a fake commercial for a new fitness system called the Barrelflex, because "rolling a heavy barrel through the hot New Mexico desert is the fastest way to achieve a sculpted, sexy look!"

We can thank Youtuber Jim Muntisov for this devilishly funny spoof of Breaking Bad episode "Confessions" (season 5, episode 11), in which the true brilliance of Walt's dark genius is revealed in a stunning "confession" video that has the effect of a tactical carpet-bombing. (If you've seen the episode, you'll know what I mean.) In Muntisov's version, Walt seems to have given Hank and Marie the wrong disc, which explains their benumbed expressions in the video above. Painfully funny.

The ingenious Edmond Hawkins is at it again, this time creating a droll, Seinfeld-esque opening with the "green bean" dinner scene from "Buyout" (season 5, episode 6). The laugh track and the goofy musical cues amplify Skyler's utter contempt--and Jesse's excruciating awkwardness--in what is arguably the funniest scene in Breaking Bad.

Another startling, painfully funny spoof from the twisted mind of Edmond Hawkins. Remember season 4, episode 13 ("Face Off"), when the ever-wary Walter, worried that Gus's goons might be lying in wait for him, calls his innocent neighbor, Becky, and asks her to check the stove? This scene is very similar, though the outcome is slightly different.

Jimmy Fallon's epic 13-minute homage to Breaking Bad features cameo appearances by several of the original cast members...

Female improv group The Katydids have created a hilarious video in which they play a group of suburban housewives having a "Breaking Bad"-themed party that goes horribly awry when one of the women shows up with a bag of crystal meth. What follows is a giddy, pony-smacking descent into utter madness and mayhem.

The duo of Eddie King and Tyler Marshall--collectively known as Teddiefilms--specialize in music video parodies, the latest of which is an homage to Breaking Bad by way of a Taylor Swift parody. I know, it's hard to wrap your mind around, but it actually works!