Arthur Chu: An Appreciation

The reign of divisive Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu came to an end last week. Considering the skill and deftness Chu had managed over the course of his run, his exit was an ignominious one. He was left in third-place after Double Jeopardy (in large measure due to missing on a Daily Double where he had bet everything) and then he missed again in Final Jeopardy with a last-gasp “all-in” wager that left him with a total of $0 for his final game.

Chu had been the Jeopardy champ for 12 games, though to casual viewers such as I his run seemed much longer, as it was interrupted by several weeks of a “Battle of the Decades” tournament featuring Jeopardy champions of times past. As it stands, Chu assembled the third-longest winning streak in the show’s venerable history, ( though it should be noted that until sometime in the early 2000s winners had their runs capped at a maximum of five games) and he will take home just shy of $300,000 for his efforts.

But what will make Chu memorable wasn’t his formidable knowledge of trivia or his game-playing acumen or his substantial success, but rather the surprising amount of vitriol his playing “style” stirred up. It’s fair to say that Chu is about as controversial a contestant as Jeopardy has ever mustered. Though considering the show’s long, mostly-staid history, that’s kind of like being declared the biggest shrimp at the supermarket—a very relative sort of distinction.

Chu raised hackles amongst Jeopardy devotees for a range of reasons. His playing style was unorthodox—instead of methodically going through the board category by category, Chu bounced all over the place trying to root out the all-important daily doubles. Some of his daily-double and Final Jeopardy wagers were unusual, sometimes only a few dollars and often playing to tie rather than win.

These tactics drew the ire of Jeopardy purists who contend that they were indicative of something approximating “poor sportsmanship.” It probably didn’t help Chu’s case that many of his moves were also used by the IBM supercomputer “Watson” when it appeared on the show and brutally thrashed its human opponents.

In truth though, these sorts of formalist complaints about Chu’s strategies are just red herrings. Other players have employed the same gambits in the past (though perhaps not as successfully), and if they can help a competitor win…well isn’t that the point? As Chu himself noted, the contestants are playing for real money and there are substantial (if not necessarily life-changing) amounts at stake during every game. If game-theory can be used to offer some incremental advantages to contestants, what’s wrong with them availing themselves of them?

No, the real antipathy towards Chu stemmed from his perceived “attitude” his detractors were eager to ascribe to him from his time on the show. He’s cocky, he tries to intimidate the other players, he’s too clipped when we selects questions, he cuts-off Alex Trebek’s corny jokes.

All of these so-called faults are really “nontroversies” at heart. Is Chu trying to intimidate his competitors? Maybe, maybe not, and even if he is, so what? As mentioned earlier, its real money at stake. What’s the big deal if he talks over Trebek’s groaners and wince-inducing accents once in a while. That’s more like a public service to viewers than an affront to the game.

There have been other Jeopardy contestants with grating personal tics or cocky demeanours in the past, but few of them have attracted much comment. In fact, I’d argue that any random Wheel of Fortune competitor is usually 8-10 times more annoying than Arthur Chu during his Jeopardy appearances. So why so much anger directed his way?

The first reason is obviously Chu’s outsized success on the show. Most aggravating players only last a game or two and then disappear before they tsunami of Twitter-hate can really build. Beyond that though, things start to get uncomfortable. Because it seems that a lot of the invective ostensibly aimed at Arthur Chu the Jeopardy contestant is in fact bound up with Arthur Chu the person.

I guess the remaining pertinent facts about Arthur Chu here are that for most of his appearances he had kind of a “schlubby” aesthetic going on. His shirts were usually rumpled and his hair kind of mussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “unkempt,” but he always kind of had the look of someone who just got back from a long day of writing direct mail pieces or selling mutual funds.

The second point, which you likely know or have deduced, is that Arthur Chu is Asian. And while I’m not going to chalk up all of the criticism he garnered to the bogeyman of racism, I feel like that has played a part in it, even if only on some subterranean level.

Judging by all the ads for arthritis medicine, Gold Bond Medicated Powder, and accessible bathtubs that let you “keep your dignity,” I’m going to say that the audience for Jeopardy skews on the old side. By old I also mean “white.” Though out-and-out racists are probably few, I’m guessing that this viewership might be less tolerant than younger demographics. For some of its members, Chu’s race likely informs the negative gestalt they develop around him, in a way that it would not for a white contestant with the same disposition and mannerisms

In all, I found most of the criticism of Chu overblown, much of it unfounded, and some of it unseemly. In the tedious “meet-the-contestants” interstitials and in subsequent media interviews, Chu always came off as an interesting and self-aware guy. He is an amateur theatre enthusiast and an aspiring voice-over actor. It sounds as though both his wife and he have had a hard time muddling through the economic downturn (as many younger couples have). His Jeopardy prowess might be the catalyst that allows them to get a better house, to have children, or to pursue some of their dreams and ambitions with greater confidence.

So, to Arthur Chu I say, “Shine on you crazy diamond.” Like Alex said it was a great run, and we’ll see you at the Tournament of Champions.





A Painful Case: The Sad Story of Dr. V

We think we know better, but a part in each of us wants to see the world unfold with the simple morality of a fairy tale. We’re at ease when situations and people can be divided into convenient dichotomies: good and evil; heroes and villains; victims and perpetrators. We acknowledge all the gray shadings but reach for the old rubric anyways, the dualisms, the choosing of sides.

Once upon a time, the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V) seemed like a simple one. She was the mysterious founder of Yar Golf and the inventor of the Zero MOI Putter. Her putter was the subject of a breathless infomercial, but it had also attracted high praise from the rarefied (and one would presume knowledgeable) world of professional golf. For writer Caleb Hannan, the assignment was straightforward: find this inventor, talk to her and those who endorsed her, and find out if the club legitimately worked.

When Hannan first contacted Vanderbilt, she emphasized that she wanted him to focus on, “the science and not the scientist.” However, her grandiose pronouncements and penchant for self-promotion made that a difficult proposition. Vanderbilt said that she had helped build the stealth bomber, and was on the team that invented Bluetooth technology. She claimed to have come up with the idea for the Zero MOI Putter while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.

Along the way, those claims and credentials would be irrefutably debunked. In his finished piece, Hannan also revealed that Dr. V was formerly a man, and in a sad coda, that she had committed suicide before the story was completed.

When the long-form story was first published on Grantland on Wednesday January 15, 2014, it received plaudits at first and a storm of criticism shortly thereafter. The site was accused of everything from having poor judgement, to being exploitative, to being transphobic. Hannan was redressed for “outing” Vanderbilt against her will in his piece and to one of her company’s investors, with some commentators suggesting he bore some responsibility for her suicide He also received numerous death threats.

Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons delivered a mea culpa on January 22, offering apologies to those offended, defending Hannan, pouring some ashes over his head and those of the other editorial staffers, and generally promising to be more sensitive next time out. The site also posted an op-ed from fellow ESPN writer Christina Karhl, detailing problems with the writing from the standpoint of the transgendered community.

So now, here is the inflection point where you are supposed to choose. Whom do you side with? How do you apportion the blame? Vanderbilt was the one who fabricated a gossamer persona and back-story and invited the scrutiny that led to its disintegration; Hannan was the one who took a personal detail and made more hay out of it than he needed to. Vanderbilt clearly didn’t want her transgendered status to become public knowledge; when Hannan was faced with a subject revealed to be mostly artifice, the question then became, what is the truth? And while Vanderbilt’s past as a man comprised part of that truth, was it fair or just to reveal it?

While Hannan’s piece itself has some issues, it’s clear that he didn’t set out to be a Kitty Kelley style takedown artist. At the beginning, he seems like Fox Mulder of X-Files: wanting to believe. He is initially credulous about Vanderbilt’s fantastic claims. And when the discrepancies begin to appear he gives her opportunity to explain them. But when he finds out that Vanderbilt lived as Stephen Kroll for the first 50 years of her life, you can see the gears turning in his mind—here’s the hook: Dr. V was born a man. Because otherwise we’ve seen this story before—journalist meets eccentric fabulist, eccentric fabulist is undone by their lies and contradictions, end scene. The transgender angle kicks the “not what they appeared to be” storyline into overdrive.

Though I understand Hannan’s choices, I sympathize with Vanderbilt. I read Hannan’s piece after reading the post-mortems from Simmons and Karhl first and the advance knowledge of how everything ended puts a suffocating layer of dread over the article.

When I was a kid, our local community college used to hold bridge building competitions for elementary school students. Participants constructed miniature trestles out of packages of balsa wood and glue, and then they were tested beneath a pneumatic press to see how much weight they could hold before they crumpled and failed. And that is what reading Vanderbilt’s increasingly desperate and inchoate responses to Hannan reminded me of, the gradual buildup of this inexorable and crushing weight, the glue cracking, the wood splintering.

Clearly, it was a mistake for such a fragile person to weave together such an outlandish fantasy and then bring it into the public square, the world of golf pros, infomercials, and curious journalists, when one tug at any single thread could cause the whole tapestry to unravel. But as Hannan himself wondered, were her sins very great? In a country that still regards P.T. Barnum as more folk-hero than charlatan, and where overheated infomercial claims are de rigeur, was Dr. V guilty of anything more than simple puffery?

The more I seek answers, the more I find only dissonance. I understand the logic that led Vanderbilt to create her elaborate “Dr. V” mythos; I understand why Hannan destroyed it. The tragedy is that the whole thing wasn’t really needed. The “mad scientist” trope has its appeal, but just as irresistible is the idea of the “unlikely prodigy:” the savant who emerges from their garage or basement with a new product, computer program, or work of art that blows everyone away. A golf putter doesn’t need a comic book hero’s origin story.

In the end, the case of Dr. V is a tale with no winners, only losers. An inventor dead before her time, a writer burdened with a measure of infamy to live down, victims of happenstance as much as anything, two satellites drawn into each other’s orbit and set on a collision course.

The pain comes from knowing that so much of it was avoidable. Somewhere, in some happier alternate reality, there was a great article to be had. An inventor with limited knowledge of golf and club fabrication creates a revolutionarily different style of putter that attracts praise from pro golf’s upper echelons. How did she do it? What inspired her? Did it actually work as advertised? Those would have been the only questions Hannan would have needed. And the answers would have been compelling enough.

Record Review No One Asked For: High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

Today marks the “official” release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, High Hopes. I pre-ordered my copy already so it should be along in a day or two, but I’ve already streamed the album online many times over, as part of my research for the Springsteen 99 project that is winding onwards.

Having immersed myself in all things Springsteen for the last six weeks or thereabouts, I feel like I’m in a good position to offer some thoughts on the new album from The Boss. If you’re fan or just Bruce-curious, the review below might help you decide if High Hopes is worth checking out.

Review of High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

A long-time supporter of many social justice causes, with High Hopes Bruce Springsteen demonstrates his concern for the environment, as fully 50 per cent of the album is constructed from recycled materials. high hopes thumb

Of the 12 songs on the record, three are covers (including the title track, which Springsteen previously recorded in the studio), one (The Ghost Of Tom Joad) was the title track of an earlier album, another was released on a live album and compilation package (American Skin), and another has been played in concert numerous times (The Wall). That leaves six songs that could be credibly construed as “new,” but even these trace their roots back to between the late 90s and mid-2000s, and in most cases earlier recordings have been used with some modern overdubs grafted on top.

So herein lies the philosophical problem for serious Springsteen aficionados. High Hopes has been relentlessly marketed as Springsteen’s “18th studio album,” when in fact it’s more like a compilation or an anthology of studio recordings. It’s closer to being one of those patchwork “B-Sides and Rarities” releases that artists used to put out to help fulfill their recording contracts, than a “true” album.

That’s the big hang-up with High Hopes, but if you can get past it or learn to ignore it, then this newest release becomes a worthwhile offering. The disparate nature of the material prevents it from hanging together as a great album, but the songs are enjoyable, vigorous, and consistently interesting. Some of the musical dynamism comes courtesy of Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who brings his wizardry to bear on eight of the 12 tracks.

The lead song is the titular High Hopes, which is a cover of a Tim Scott McConnell composition. On record, the song just doesn’t do it for me; it feels like a car revving its engine in neutral—a lot of noise but not much movement, though it’s supposedly a barnburner when played in concert. A few more songs also have issues. This Is Your Sword is middling folk rock, while the energetic Heaven’s Wall tries to fuse together styles ranging from gospel to hard rock but ends up sounding muddled.

Fortunately, other tracks are more successful. The second cut is Harry’s Place, a song originally written and recorded during sessions for The Rising in 2002. Harry’s Place unspools a yarn about an underworld fixer and the desperate characters who come to him for assistance. The song has an unexpected sleazy charm, driven by pulsing bass and wah guitar. Clarence Clemons appears on the track with a saxophone solo that could be background music for someone flipping open a briefcase full of cocaine in a pay-by-the-hour motel room.

The energetic Just Like Fire Would is another strong entrant. The song is a cover of an Australian punk band called The Saints whom Springsteen is an admirer of, and it sounds like he does them justice with his muscular rendition. The swaying Hunter of Invisible Game is another solid effort, as is the don’t-think-too-hard fun of Frankie Fell In Love.

The first-half highlight of the album and its best original track is the astounding Down In The Hole. It’s a delicate assemblage that weaves together banjo, multiple backing vocals, violin, samples, and the backbeat from I’m On Fire to tell the story of a haunted 9/11 rescue worker. Springsteen’s vocal begins with a filtered effect that suddenly drops off mid-line in the second verse—as though his character has punched through a layer of rubble to reach the body of a victim. It’s an inspired conceit, one that takes an eerie song (and one of Springsteen’s best latter-day compositions) to stunning heights.

Interestingly, it’s probably the most well-known songs on High Hopes that provoke the most mixed-feelings. The Ghost of Tom Joad, sung here as a duet/guitar freak-out with Morello, is paradoxically one of the album’s strongest tracks while also being it’s most gratuitous. The incendiary on-stage performances of the song by Springsteen, Morello, and the band have rightly become legendary. But to re-record it here, after it headlined another studio album, and to stretch it out to almost 7:30 in length is the definition of indulgence: enjoyable but not necessary.

There’s more dissonance to be found with American Skin (41 Shots). While it’s nice to have a studio recording of one of Bruce’s best post-2000 songs captured for posterity, the version here is over-long and over-processed. The live performance from Live In NYC is shorter, better, and should remain definitive.

The album closes with a pair of highlights. The penultimate track is The Wall, an affecting tribute to a local Asbury Park musician named Walter Cichon who was killed in Vietnam. CIchon was someone whom a teenaged Springsteen admired when he was growing up. The song details Springsteen’s visit to the Vietnam Memorial and uses understated acoustic guitar, organ, and trumpet to build a gentle elegy.

The album closes with a dazzling cover of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, a song that vies for the title of best track on the album with Down In The Hole.  Springsteen began playing Dream Baby Dream during 2005’s Devils and Dust solo tour; the version on High Hopes is an expanded and more polished take. The song begins floating on a wave of harmonium and then builds into an insistent, orchestral hymn, providing a poignant but hopeful coda to the collection. A video of the song was released to commemorate the end of the Wrecking Ball tour in 2013. Near the end, there are clips of late E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. For Springsteen sentimentalists, it’s hard to watch without being moved.

The Bottom Line:
Springsteen used to build albums with the painstakingness of a master chef preparing a grand banquet, but in recent times, he seems increasingly willing to whip together a meal out of whatever ingredients happen to be near at hand. As he nears pensioner age, it gets harder to begrudge him doing this, and as High Hopes proves the results can still be mostly-appetizing. However, next time it would be nice if he breaks out the good china again and serves up something scratch-made instead of cobbled together from leftovers.

There’s much good in High Hopes, but as a whole, the album contains more vitality than necessity. However, if you can accept it for what it is rather than what it purports to be, you’ll probably enjoy listening. For moderate fans (and above) I would rate it a buy. Casual followers can afford to give it a pass, while for neophytes there are better entry points available.

Final Grade:
B –