Klein, bottled

I don’t want to get myself in trouble, so right off the bat let me say that I am in no way likening myself to Jesus Christ. Yet when I think about a thing that happened to me in the summer of the year I turned eleven, I feel a certain kinship with him. And I don’t just mean being Jewish.

This story begins several months earlier, when I turned ten and received the most consequential birthday gift of my life: a portable Panasonic tape recorder.

Remarkably, a photo survives of me opening that gift. Clearly I am pleased.

Observe the nerd-tastic football jacket that isn’t.

You can draw a straight line from that moment to my participation as one of the founding members of the Internet Movie Database.

Like this: Around the same time, my family became one of the earliest subscribers to HBO. Home Box Office had the unique and, to a budding cinephile like myself, irresistable proposition in those pre-cable-TV days of showing movies uncensored and uninterrupted by commercials. Consumer videotapes were not yet a thing (much less laserdiscs and DVDs, and streaming could not even be imagined) and so movies could not be enjoyed on demand — unless you were content to replay just the audio of a movie you had recorded by placing a mic near the TV’s small speaker. I recorded many movies this way, listening to them repeatedly the way other people listened to their favorite records. Occasionally I listened to one tape so many times that I memorized it, and years later this questionable talent landed me the job of IMDb Quotes Editor.

Another of HBO’s main attractions from its earliest days was its “On Location” series, a collection of unexpurgated performances inaugurated in 1975 by the comedian Robert Klein (one of the top performers, with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin, keeping the flame of standup comedy alive during the decade between its flowering in the 60’s and its explosive ubiquity in the 80’s). I was a fan, and in 1977, HBO aired a followup concert, “Robert Klein Revisited.” I tape-recorded it and there was just enough time before summer vacation for me to memorize big chunks of his routine.

School was out and we were among the annual migration of Jewish families from the swelter of New York City to a couple of months of bungalow-colony life in the Catskill mountains. Bungalow-colony life did not include TV. (And, in case contemporary readers need reminding, there was no Internet, nor any personal electronics.) For entertainment, we went outside.

Late one Friday afternoon, sitting at the picnic table in front of my bungalow, I “did” some of Robert Klein’s recent show for a couple of my friends. They laughed at the jokes, which felt tremendous, and even though it may have begun in conversational fashion, by the end I was in full-on performance mode. We all had a good time, even if some of the words coming out of my mouth went over all our heads.

The next Friday, one of my friends suggested I give a repeat performance, this time for a bigger audience. Without my really knowing what was happening, the word had spread about my “show” and there was now a group of a dozen or more kids in front of my bungalow. Rather than sit at our picnic table I stood atop it. I did exactly the same material in exactly the same way as the week before. And I killed! My mom, amazed, watched from the door of the bungalow as her very own Borscht Belt tummler worked the crowd, a story she told and retold for the rest of her life. (My dad would arrive later that evening, along with all the other dads after a week at work in the city.) Meanwhile, my original couple of friends, who’d heard exactly the same routine a week earlier, listened to my new fans’ cheers with pride at having been in on the act at the beginning.

One week later, my Friday-afternoon act had transformed into a ritual. Someone announced it over the P.A. system! The crowd in front of my bungalow had grown to 20-30 people, including a few bemused adults. My original couple of friends were now my handlers, prepping me for my performance. All of this had somehow happened without any involvement from me. For my part I was awhirl at being the center of attention, but was also growing reluctant to do the show. For one thing, I had no new material, and largely a returning audience who’d heard it all before. For another, I simply didn’t understand at least 10% of what I had memorized, and so I could do nothing other than repeat it as faithfully to the audience as my tape recorder had repeated it to me and hope that they responded just as faithfully with the laughter that the recording had led me to expect. I had no ability, none at all, to riff, edit, or otherwise adapt the material to the mood of the “room.” I could not have articulated that at the time, but thinking on your feet is of course an essential skill at the heart of standup comedy, and I was vaguely aware of, and uncomfortable about, not having it.

As expected, my recitation of Klein’s lines was received less enthusiastically than the week before, for the expected reasons. There was still laughter and applause, but none of that energy that flows like a current between audience and performer when things are going well. I was considerably less thrilled to be the center of attention. Still, it was enough of a success that when the following Friday rolled around, I was enjoined to perform yet again.

But I found very quickly that it was no longer about me or the act — if it ever even had been. The ritual was now about the ritual itself. A couple of friends, having armed themselves with water pistols, proclaimed themselves my bodyguards and insisted on escorting me during the preliminaries leading up to the show. This included a trip to the P.A. shack, where another self-appointed minion was in charge of announcing the upcoming show to one and all, and where my job apparently was to supervise the announcement. On the way back from there we encountered another group seeking to do crowd control or distribute fruit juice from my mom or perform some other show-related job, and my bodyguards got bossy and territorial. It was tribal, and it was ugly, and I didn’t like it. Before long, too many competing interests trying to impose too many different kinds of organization on an event too flimsy to bear much organizing in the first place caused the whole thing to fizzle. I did not go on, and the ritual did not repeat, and I was relieved. (Anyway, it was time for the summer to become all about Star Wars.)

To sum up: I had a message, and I delivered it to a growing and receptive audience. Yet my delivery of this message was the seed crystal around which an elaborate structure formed, a structure that had little or nothing to do with me or my message, and everything to do with the needs of the people forming it: their need for power, their need for meaning, their need to feel useful, their need to be part of something larger than themselves. Does this make you think of any major world religions, and the humble message-delivering central figure they all claim in common?

Again, can’t stress enough: not likening myself to Jesus. For one thing, his message actually was his. For another, I don’t doubt his riffing ability.


Trypod


I’ve been asked more than once about the podcasts I listen to during my commute. There are a lot of them, and I can barely keep up with new episodes even when I listen to them at 1.5x normal speed (which I do routinely, so that if I ever happen to hear e.g. Ira Glass or Terry Gross at normal speed, it sounds like brain damage).

Now it’s #trypod month, when lots of podcasts are imploring listeners to spread the word about which podcasts to listen to and how to find them, for those who aren’t yet indoctrinated. So here’s an annotated list of my current subscriptions. For the record, I listen to these shows using the BeyondPod Android app on my phone.

The “Do the Math” Puzzler
Short-and-sweet math puzzles by my good friend Wes Carroll, each at just the right difficulty level — I can just manage to do most of them without pencil and paper, if I push myself — and with an elegant solution presented clearly and edifyingly in the following episode.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
History, in-depth and amazingly told. Carlin’s episodes appear only seldom, and when they do they are hours long apiece — and even so, they go by too fast. Of special note is his magisterial six-part series on World War I, “Blueprint For Armageddon” (at this writing, still available for free). It adds up to nearly a full day of listening but not only does it never gets boring, it’s full of drama and suspense and leaves you wanting more.
This American Life
The éminence grise of excellently told miscellaneous radio stories.
Fresh Air
The éminence grise of interviews with celebrities, politicians, and other newsmakers.
Planet Money
Topics in economics made accessible and fun. Not quite as indispensable as it was during the financial crisis.
Radiolab
Superb storytelling on fascinating topics in science.
99% Invisible
Vignettes about design from Roman Mars, the brains behind the Radiotopia podcasting empire.
Scriptnotes
Two veteran Hollywood screenwriters with a terrific bantering dynamic discuss screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, and also to anyone who loves the nuts and bolts of storytelling and filmmaking. This is the one I look forward to most each week.
the memory palace
Small, true stories of the nearly forgotten past, each related as an impressionistic reverie.
The Moth
Podcast of the live-storytelling-show phenomenon.
StartUp
Podcast about getting businesses off the ground. The first season concerned the launch of Gimlet Media, the very company producing the StartUp podcast.
Serial
Podcasts had been around for quite a while before Serial, but Serial put podcasting on the map. Its format – a season-long deep-dive into a single news story – became a national phenomenon.
Radiolab Presents: More Perfect
Side project from the Radiolab team (see above) telling surprising stories from the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Truth
Each episode is a short radio drama. Some are silly, some are disturbing, many will stick with you.
Slate’s Working
Each episode is an interview with a person in a different profession, examining what working in that profession is like.
My Dad Wrote a Porno

When one guy learned his dad had written a series of truly cringeworthy erotic novels, he did the obvious thing: got together with his two hilarious friends and recorded a podcast. In each episode he reads another chapter to them, and us, from the series, while the friends provide MST3K-like commentary. Very NSFW, but not what you’d call arousing.

This podcast is apparently all the rage in Hollywood, and the more recent episodes have featured guest appearances by celebrities like Daisy Ridley and Elijah Wood.

Welcome to Night Vale
I’ve heard this hilarious podcast described, accurately, as “Stephen King meets A Prairie Home Companion.”
The Allusionist
Helen Zaltzman, of the long-running Answer Me This podcast (see below), hosts this one too on the topic of words and etymologies. Her persona on this show is toned down somewhat from Answer Me This, but still quite funny.
You Must Remember This
Juicy and well-researched stories from “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”
Ask Me Another
NPR’s comic trivia-puzzle game show hosted by Ophira Eisenberg and nerd-music god Jonathan Coulton.
Revisionist History
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast miniseries about well-known news stories of the past, and the surprising turns they took after everyone stopped paying attention.
Hidden Brain
NPR’s social science reporter Shankar Vedantam does Radiolab-style deep dives into topics on human behavior.
Getting In
Now-concluded, highly informative podcast about the college admissions process hosted by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University.
Within the Wires
Serialized scripted mystery/thriller from a creator of “Welcome to Night Vale.”
Answer Me This
Long-running British podcast whose hilarious (and often dirty-minded) hosts answer questions of all sorts posed by listeners.
Homecoming
Serialized scripted thriller featuring big-name acting talent.
Crimetown
The saga of organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1970’s.
The Gist
Rapid-fire thinker and talker Mike Pesca hosts a daily discussion of topics in the news, plus interviews.
How To Be Amazing
Actor and comedian Michael Ian Black hosts his own interview show featuring fellow actors, artists, writers, musicians, and more.

These are the lessons of the starship Enterprise

I’m grateful to Wired for publishing the article about Star Trek on its fiftieth anniversary that I would have if I’d had the necessary time and insight. It argues that the incoherent spectacle presently being peddled under the “Star Trek” name takes merely the set dressing from the original and discards what made the original a classic: its point of view.

I’d only like to expand on that article’s point a bit, to say that the show’s point of view was not limited to politics. At its best, Star Trek was not merely a “blueprint for how to govern,” but a blueprint for how to live, teaching lessons about leadership, about balancing the head and the heart, about how to approach the unknown, and other evergreen questions about the human condition. These lessons were simplistic and moralistic, but to a young kid in Queens learning to make his way in the world during the golden age of nightly Star Trek reruns, they landed with all the more force for their simplicity.

The lesson of “A Taste of Armageddon,” in which Kirk forces a society to confront the true horrors of a centuries-old war that’s been mostly out of sight and out of mind? “War is hell.”

Of the time-travel story “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk learns that to repair the broken timeline he must let the woman he loves die? “Leave well enough alone.”

Of “Amok Time,” in which Spock grieves, briefly believing he has killed Kirk in ritual combat while in the grip of the Vulcan mating fever? “Bros before hos.”

Of “The Ultimate Computer,” in which the advanced automation being tested to replace Kirk is revealed to be as deranged as its creator? “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Even after Star Trek graduated to the big screen, its best incarnation there, The Wrath of Khan, also embodied a simple lesson, suited to its maturing fan base: “You’re only as old as you feel.”

These are not merely glib captions. All the good episodes of classic Trek can be boiled down in this way, and taken together (and looking past the rubber alien costumes, the styrofoam rocks, the gauzy lenses used to shoot the occasional glamorous guest-actress, and the fair number of Trek episodes that were… less than classic), they amount to a viable, if patchy and now somewhat dated, handbook of manhood that shaped me and a whole generation of sci-fi nerds.

What can impressionable young fans take away from the current Star Trek films… other than how grumpy they make grandpa?


The flip-around thing


After seeing the film The Martian, my sister Suzanne posed a science question about it to me, one that I can imagine many other moviegoers had as well. Here’s (an edited version of) her question and (an elaborated version of) my answer. Spoilers ahead!

Q: ‎My very first thought when NASA finally realizes Watney’s still alive was, great! It’s only been 40-something days. Surely there’s a way for the Hermes crew to go back for him. And then I waited another hour before the movie caught up.

What I don’t understand is why that idea became such a big aha/eureka moment for that dude who thought of it, why the “top minds” at NASA rejected it, and why it took so long to get behind it as a plan. Why didn’t anyone think of it sooner? Why couldn’t they expedite the rescue by boosting thrusters or whatever‎ to do the flip-around thing earlier?

A: The movie was great (and very faithful to the book), but it could have done a better job of explaining why the Hermes-return solution was such a big deal.

Star Trek makes space navigation seem like steering sea vessels. Star Wars makes it seem like driving hot rods. Other movies, video games, etc. – and even Interstellar, which took pains to depict some exotic science accurately – give the impression that it’s just a matter of pointing your ship where you want to go, and going there. For better or worse, that’s the mental frame of reference that audiences bring to movies about space.

In fact space travel (given our present technology) is much more like firing a gun. The spaceship is the bullet. You get one main chance to aim correctly, and then BANG, off you go. After that there is no changing course. Tom Hanks puts it like this in Apollo 13: “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” (Something no real astronaut would say, understanding that there is no time Sir Isaac Newton isn’t in the driver’s seat).

In fact it’s even harder than aiming a bullet because a bullet reaches its target, or misses, in fractions of a second. A spaceship bullet is aimed at something that’s months away, at a target that’s in motion, and it travels – or more precisely, falls – through a medium governed by gravity, where the sources of gravity – the Sun, the Earth, Mars, etc. – are all in motion relative to each other, creating ever-shifting “currents” tugging the spaceship this way and that.

Once the Hermes fired her engine for the return trip to Earth, that was pretty much that. It had almost no fuel left for other maneuvering. There was no “doing the flip-around thing.” It would have taken a fair bit of inspiration even to think of looking for a return-to-Mars trajectory (let alone a return-to-Mars-and-then-Earth-again one!) plus a lot of luck that one existed, plus a lot of work to actually find it, plus a lot of daring to attempt a critical resupply during the high-speed gravity-assist Earth flyby, all of which the movie depicts a little too simply.

Hopefully, the many cool science things that the movie does depict accurately will whet audiences’ appetites to learn more and thereby discover for themselves just how audacious and unlikely the rescue plan was. Meanwhile, go play with NASA’s interplanetary trajectory browser!

Kill Ralphie! saved!


[Cross-posted at kill-ralphie.blogspot.com/2015/06/kill-ralphie-saved.html.]

In the 1980’s, students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University were on the Internet, but there was no World Wide Web yet – no browsers, no websites, no Google, Facebook, or YouTube; in fact, no video and almost no graphics, just text. But there still existed social communities online, organized into discussion forums on numerous topics. Usenet was the biggest of these. Carnegie Mellon had its own internal collection of discussion forums called bboards.

One bboard was called “Kill Ralphie!” When someone posted to Kill Ralphie, they were contributing a chapter to an ongoing story about a hapless lad who is alternately placed in immediate mortal danger, then rescued, both in the most creative and entertaining ways possible. I was an enthusiastic participant back then, along with many others at CMU. Writing for an audience of fellow contributors was a formative experience for me that improved my prose and humor skills from “immature” to “slightly less immature.”

Well, guess what? Kill Ralphie! lives again! I’ve taken that old pastime and turned it into a fun new website. Please check it out, contribute chapters, and enjoy: kill-ralphie.com.

From the home office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

There is nothing I can say about David Letterman that isn’t already being said in tremendous quantity, and occasionally quality, all over the Internet. (Example.) Nothing, that is, except to relate my David Letterman Dream.

Background: I was a David Letterman fan from the very start of his national TV career. I saw him as a new comic doing stand-up on The Tonight Show. I rejoiced when a snow day meant I could stay home from school to watch his short-lived daytime program. His HBO special, “David Letterman: Looking For Fun” seemed designed to appeal especially to me, personally. I was there for the first episode of Late Night, and many more thereafter. His arrival on late-night TV just as I began the slow transformation to adulthood assured me I was inheriting a hipper and more interesting world than the genteel one inhabited by Johnny Carson and my parents. I didn’t know then to call it “postmodernism,” I just knew that there seemed to be a secret joke at the heart of pop culture and Dave and I both got it.

A few years later, halfway through college and finally living in a place of my own, feeling alternately independent and lonely, my sleep-wake cycle shifted crazily late and life an unpredictable whirl of schoolwork, friends, and cherchez la femme, Letterman became my reliable daily refuge. His frequent willingness to expose the machinery behind Late Night — the offices, the studio, the local environs, the staff and crew — was the first clear indication I ever had, and a strangely reassuring one, that a future writing top-notch TV comedy awaited me if I wanted it.

In a nearby parallel universe, Dave and I were buds.

I visited that parallel universe once in the most vivid dream of that sleep-deprived period. I got onto the elevator at the ground floor of Rockefeller Center with Dave and several others, some celebrities, some not. We all chatted amiably. As the elevator rose, it also shrunk, because 30 Rock, it turns out, was a pyramid, and that’s what pyramids do to elevators. So at each stop a number of people were forced to get out. Finally it was just me and Dave riding the last few floors to the top. Together we hatched a scheme where I would come on Late Night as a guest. Dave would introduce me as a big celebrity. (“Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction…”) We’d make up movie premieres, charity events, and awards ceremonies for me to describe having attended. The joke would be on the audience as they tried to figure out where they were supposed to know me from.

To this day I half believe that if I had ever actually befriended David Letterman and pitched that idea to him, he would have gone for it, and I’m just as sure that no one else on TV from then until now would have.

When you click a YouTube link

Earlier today I gave a presentation about YouTube to seventh graders for “career day” at Jonah’s middle school. (Actually I gave it six times in a row to rotating classroomsful of kids, with the result that (a) I’m totally shredded and (b) I have even more respect for what teachers do all day every day.) Coincidentally it’s the tenth anniversary of the first YouTube video.

I thought fifth grade would be my last chance to appear cool to Jonah’s classmates on his behalf (and I’ve now given that presentation to Archer’s class too), but it looks like I have some coolness left after all. He even allowed me to walk to school with him and his neighborhood friends this morning:

Me: OK if I walk to school with you in the morning?
Jonah, shrugging: Sure.
Me: OK. Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t cramping your style or anything.
Jonah: What style?

Maybe YouTube lends me a little extra middle-school cred. Anyway, the presentation was well-received by most of the kids. It involved soliciting sixteen volunteers per class to read different parts aloud in a short little play I wrote. Each volunteer got a copy of the script with his or her part individually highlighted (which I did by hand earlier this week for all ninety-six copies I needed to hand out – eight pages each – and this in the middle of April, because I’m a glutton for punishment). I was a little worried about getting enough volunteers in each class, but I need not have been; the kids were down with whatever the YouTube guy wanted to do. I gave out my bribes anyway: YouTube stickers and pens.

I was the narrator. Everyone in the class who didn’t volunteer for one of the other parts became “All the buttons and menus.” After we performed the scene, the teacher displayed a web page I had prepared containing a YouTube link and we watched – hopefully with a little better understanding now of what was going on behind the scenes – as she clicked it and Dramatic Chipmunk played. It took a split second to perform all the actions we’d just spent eight minutes dramatizing.

We didn’t get to the song I included at the end of the script. I didn’t expect to but included it anyway as a little lagniappe for the kids. I hope some of them are singing it now; I know I am.

After the sixth presentation, I thanked the teacher for hosting me. She complimented me on the scene I had written. “Thanks,” I said, “but after six repetitions the words have lost all meaning.” She replied, “Welcome to the world of teaching.”

Performance anxiety

In 1998, when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity, I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly given by its star, David Duchovny. Talking about the fans who revered him as his character “Fox Mulder,” he took pains to point out:

It’s pretty workaday, people don’t seem to realize: You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder.

I understand the impulse to demystify one’s profession, really. It’s embarrassing to be venerated by awestruck laymen. Modesty compels the likes of Duchovny and me to draw back the curtain and expose the workings of the machine — to prove that anyone could do what we do, it’s simply a matter of electing to.

Even though I have the impulse to demonstrate that to others, it turns out I don’t actually believe it myself. Not when it comes to acting, anyway. I find good acting to be mystifying, and actors themselves intimidating, be they never so humble.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an actor. In high school my new classmate Cynthia was one. She appeared in Afterschool Specials on TV, and in the 1980 movie Little Darlings (among much else later on). Although I wouldn’t have admitted it then, I was awestruck. I cluelessly pestered her for her agent’s name and contact info, so I could send a head shot and be discovered. When a talent scout visited our school once, hunting for someone to be the lead in My Bodyguard, I managed to insert myself in the interview schedule, and was peeved when they showed more interest in my best friend Chuck than in me.

Years later I realized it wasn’t acting I wanted to do. I simply wanted others to be as impressed with me as I was with Cynthia. I was jealous of my own feelings about her!

I should have known that my supposed desire to act was misguided when my close friend Andrew began showing signs of being a talented actor himself. Although I was his performing cohort on a few memorable occasions — we co-founded our school’s repertory group together with a few other friends and had a popular comedy act on the side — none of what I was doing was real acting (it was reading lines and playing for laughs), whereas when Andrew performed, he disappeared into his role, and it pretty well freaked me out. When he became a country bumpkin, or a Victorian gentleman, or a brash uncle, or an elderly Jew, it seemed to me there was no trace left of my friend. When we hung out together he would sometimes switch personalities and become someone I didn’t know how to relate to, exhibiting behaviors and emotions I knew weren’t Andrew’s. I was exactly as uncomfortable around him at such times as if a total stranger began emoting at me. In college I had another friend, Amy, a drama major, who had the same unsettling ability to abandon her usual demeanor on a whim and adopt an alternate one, fully realized.

I’ve often wondered why I’m so disconcerted by the abilities of actors. I think it must have to do with the fact that emotions are the raw materials of their craft. When I was young I was never especially comfortable with emotions, mine or others’. I was raised on 60’s cool; I identified with Mr. Spock. I suspect that for much of my youth I would have denied having very many emotions at all (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), and would have considered that laudable. I became a computer programmer, and not without reason. Computers can be instructed with precision and always respond predictably — exactly the opposite experience of dealing with people and their emotions.

From time to time my emotions would get the better of me. An unrequited crush could send me into a tailspin for weeks. Feelings were to be feared and kept under control. But actors! Actors are so at ease in the world of feelings that they put theirs on display. They change them on demand, and make sport with them! Confronted with such mastery of such dangerous stuff, I felt like the caveman who peers into a rival cave and is terrified to discover fearless tribesmen putting food into fire and then eating it!

Of course I’ve enjoyed good acting all my life; it’s only when the actor is known to me, and the alchemical transformation happens before my eyes, that I’m flustered. It’s less true today than in the past. I’m older now and, like Old Spock, have come to grips a little better with my own emotional life. But I’m still mistrustful of feelings, which control me more than I control them, so my inclination still is to keep them submerged. I therefore continue to be mystified and impressed and, yes, a little frightened by those who are not only able but willing to surface their feelings, to shape them and amplify them to create performances — that can, in turn, affect my own.

The arrow that springs from the bow

In 1996, some friends and I started our own software company, Zanshin. But by 1999, suffering from a lack of focus and a tendency toward overengineering, we had still not managed to produce a salable version of our world-changing software. Luckily for us we got a consulting gig for Amazon.com (unrelated to my involvement with the Internet Movie Database). That contract went so well that after a few months of it, in early 2000, Amazon offered to hire us all. We would have to close Zanshin and move up to Seattle. Andrea and I, newly married, got as far as scoping out Seattle neighborhoods. We were leaning toward accepting Amazon’s offer. Zanshin clearly was going nowhere, and Amazon had interesting work for us.

We had a Zanshin company meeting to talk it over. Some of us wanted to accept, some wanted to keep trying with Zanshin. We had the frank discussion about our plans and lack of progress that we should have been having all along. In the process, we brainstormed some exciting new ideas. In the days that followed we fleshed those out. The uninspired daily grind that working at Zanshin had become took on a new feeling of hopefulness. My co-worker Steve, who had also been in favor of the Amazon offer, gave a stirring speech about continuing on our own.

When it came time to give Amazon our final decision, we voted unanimously to turn them down. Knowing I’d previously been the strongest vote in favor of the Amazon offer, my co-worker Greg asked if I was sure. I replied, “I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitation.”

It was a line spoken by Michael O’Hare as Jeffrey Sinclair in Babylon 5. I have used that sentiment a few times since then as a way to gauge my readiness for something — starting a family, for instance. If I can’t say that line with conviction I know I’m kidding myself.

Today came news that Michael O’Hare died. Nerds all over the web are paying him tribute for his role in a beloved space adventure, but his legacy is a little more personally meaningful to me. His memorable reading of that one line has attended every important decision of my life since he spoke it.

Not Robert Culp!

Robert Culp, who died yesterday at 79, was one of my favorite minor actors. I was already a fan thanks to his distinctive delivery as Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero when I discovered reruns of I Spy in college, and just in time too. I had soured on the juvenile humor and the self-parody in most of the James Bond films and was looking for someone new to teach me how to be cool. Culp’s Kelly Robinson was just the one.

I could go on and on, but the blogosphere is already full of encomiums about his wit, wisdom, and talent. I do want to mention, though, that among his many other achievements and memorable performances, he has the distinction of having given the best reading of the line “Oh shit!” in film history.

In Turk 182!, he plays fictional New York City mayor John Tyler, who is touting his “Polish the Big Apple” program for eliminating graffiti. Timothy Hutton plays a kid with a private grievance against the mayor that he takes public by defacing city property in increasingly daring and entertaining ways. Here’s what happens when the mayor tries to unveil one of his administration’s new “graffiti-proof” subway trains.