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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The 11-11-11 Project Proceeds According to Plan

Well, my damn PC went down and I'm blogging in safe mode. Yeah, safe mode.
So, I'm going around my library selecting--on the fly--the tentative line-up for the 11-11-11 Project. It is composed of books I already own but have not yet read.
1.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens; Classic Literature.
2.  Scientist, Soldier, Statesman, Spy: Count Rumford by G.I. Brown, Historical Biography.
3.  Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, Historical Fiction.
4.  Annals of the Former World by John McPhee, Geology/Travel.
5.  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine, Thriller.
6.  The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, Science.
7.  The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton ed. by Martin Gardner, Short Stories.
8.  The Solitary Vice: Against Reading by Mikita Brottman, Current Events.
9.  The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, Contemporary Fiction.
10. Money Mischief by Milton Friedman, Economics.
11. War For the Oaks by Emma Bull, Urban Fantasy.

As we see, I alternated between fiction and non-fiction. Also, only two of these--the Dickens and the McPhee--could be considered doorstoppers, the rest are of moderate length at most. I didn't do this on purpose; I just picked titles that looked interesting. This way I have more time to read all the other books in my collection that I haven't read yet. You don't think I'm only going to read these eleven books do you?
And I suppose you could argue that Dark-Adapted Eye and the Father Brown stories are both mysteries, but from reading Eye's blurb, it really seems that it's more of a suspense story than a whodunit. Besides, finding fiction of different genres was a lot harder than I thought, so I figured that a short story collection from a century ago would differ sufficiently from a psychological thriller from the eighties.
I, of course, reserve the right to alter the line-up if I feel like it.
Should be fun.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A challenge for 2011

While I'm getting off my ass and working on the next movie in the series, I came across this article. The writer, Laura Miller, references the 10/10/10 challenge: 10 books in 10 different categories by 10/10/10. Starting on January 1, I'll take the challenge to the next level and pledge to read 11 books in 11 categories by 11/11/11. My first challenge is to think of 11 distinct genres.
Let's give it a whirl: in fiction we have Mystery, Literary Fiction, Steampunk, Historical Fiction, Hard Science Fiction, Comedy, Young Adult, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Crime Fiction, Legal Thriller, Horror, Chick Lit, Spy Thriller, Magical Realism, Political Thriller.
In non-fiction: Biography, History, Science, Sports, Religion, Inspiration, Self-Help, Psychology, Philosophy, Humor, Politics, Economics, Finance, Business
I guess it all comes down to how you break down your genres. By January 1, I hope to have the full list of books and the order I'm going to read them. I'm toying with alternating fiction and non-fiction, but we'll see how that goes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

It's Banned Books Week! Yay?

Over at the Guardian, author Lauren Myracle makes an eloquent plea to 'build bridges' with book banners. I have to admire her general reasonableness and willingness to connect with these horrid pinheads. As you'll see below, she's way more generous and turn-the-other-cheeky than I am and I admire her for that.
Where Myralce and I part company is near the end of her article, when she raises an objection to someone calling book-banners "prudish, small-minded, and self-righteous." Isn't this like not wanting to label NBA all-stars as "tall and athletically inclined"? Aren't censors prudish, small-minded and at least a little self-righteous by definition? Are there any would-be book-banners running around who are libertine, cosmopolitan and humble? If you know any--or are one--please let me know.
She concludes her article with:
If you want to join the conversation, do this: read one of the titles on the current list of most frequently-challenged books. Then pass the book along to someone else, whether that someone is an adult or a kid. Then, together, talk about the book openly and with mutual respect for each other's opinions. Do that, and you will have made the world a better place.
I love the idea of sharing books and opinions with our intellectual enemies. After all, it'd be pretty hypocritical to try to shout them down or, worse, force them to abide by civil discourse. Great idea, I just wish I were more optimistic about it.
I disagree, however, with the notion that we have to respect their opinions. I absolutely respect their right to hold their cancerous, life-denying opinions, but the opinion itself? Never. The very idea of "I don't like it, so you can't have it" is toxic and stupid and needs to go the way of "Hey, let's own those guys and make them work our fields" and "My god wants me to be your king."
It's one thing to want to keep your child from certain books. (I'm still not sure that we ever have to protect kids from words and ideas, but as a parent that's absolutely your prerogative.) But the instant you try to tell someone else what they can read you've crossed the line. And that's the line we have to hold because if we give tiny-minded parochial types an atom of power over what we read, they'll try to take it all.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Seven! --What's in the box?!?

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Charlie Kauffman.
Starring Jim Carey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood.
  I can't remember another film that broke my heart as much as this one, yet I had the biggest smile on my face when I left the theater. This is one of the films I break out whenever someone starts saying that they don't make them like they used to, as if it were automatically a bad thing. I don't know if you could have made 'Eternal Sunshine...' in 1955, say, without audiences having infarctions right there in their seats.
  Or I could be full of crap. I think today's average moviegoer is more sophisticated in the sense that we've seen more filmmakers' tricks than our ancestors. Today's filmgoers, however, are probably not better at critical thinking. No worse, maybe, but certainly not better. The question is, apparently, would a film that demands and rewards our attention as 'Eternal Sunshine...' does have been commercially viable 40, 50, 60 years ago? Or am I shortchanging both yesterday's film fans and filmmakers?
  Another thing.... I don't cry at movies because it's not, well, real. I'm sorry, but even the most skillful make-believe just doesn't do it for me. This film, however, is on the short list of ones that might do the trick if I weren't, you know, dead inside.
  Trivia moment: Elijah Wood is one of only two actors to star in two of my top ten films. You've met the other guy and I'll reveal who it is when the time comes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eight is not Enough

Sorry, you two. I've been moving and been without intertubes access for a week. I'll try to make up for it with a second post later this week.

8. Vertigo (1958)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.
Starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore.
  Warning! This post contains spoilers for Vertigo. If neither of you has seen Vertigo, watch it before reading this. Everybody deserves to see Vertigo unspoiled.
  Kim Novak's performance as Madeline/Judy might be the best I've ever seen. For a long time I lamented that Hitchcock couldn't use Grace Kelly, my favorite actress, in the role because she was off princessing (yeah, I just verbed it). But then I realized that while Kelly could play Madeline Elster in her sleep (Regal, icy, self-possessed. Check, check, and check.) I'm less sure about her ability to play Judy Barton (earthy, small-town, easily swayed). And after another, more recent viewing I concluded that Kim Novak was perfect. In the scene at the mission just before Madeline's death, she tells Scottie "it's too late" as she's pulling away from him. We think that Madeline means that the spirit of Carlotta Veldes is compelling her and that it's too late to stop her. As we find out later, that's actually Judy speaking, telling Scottie that despite her burgeoning feelings for him it's too late for her to back out of Gavin Elster's plot. And if you go back and look, you can see Judy peeking out from behind her Madeline mask as she struggles in Scottie's embrace.
  Vertigo is one of many films to receive mixed reviews at the time of release--such as 'The Night of the Hunter' or 'Duck Soup' or 'Bonnie and Clyde'--but has grown into a classic. Why is that? Are some films just so far ahead of their time that they cannot be appreciated fully in their own? Or is something else going on? I wonder if any underappreciated films of the last ten years will be regarded as classics. I think that will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Number Nine, Number Nine Number Nine...

The second in a series of what Flickchart says my top ten films are.
9. The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair [Two Towers only].
Starring Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Elijah Wood.
  Yeah, I know. Flickchart has this as three films, but I count this as one giant film dispersed over a two-year stretch. Mostly because it's one giant story that had to be segmented because a ten-hour film wouldn't be commercially viable. It's okay if you don't consider it one film, though. I don't mind.
  Oddly enough, this is the only real nerdtastic entry in my top 10 (with the possible exception of number 4, stay tuned....), but it's got enough nerditude for at least ten films. I remember waiting for this to come out and almost dreading it because I was afraid it would fail to live up to my expectations. And Roger Ebert's lackluster 3-star review didn't help. It took about ten minutes to quell any misgivings I had. And that includes eight minutes of prologue, which I think is unnecessary but still beautiful to watch. According to the DVD commentary track by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens, prologue was at one point mandated by the studio because the suits were afraid general audiences would be lost from the beginning and would be playing catch up when they should have been watching the movie. This is a real concern, but I think the prologue is a mistake because it puts the audience ahead of *every other character* in the film. After that eight minutes no character knows as much as any given viewer, and this robbed us of--among other things--the pleasure of sharing an "Oh, shit" moment with Frodo Baggins as he realizes that he possesses the most sought-after item in the entire world. Move the exposition in the prologue to the scene in which Gandalf sits down with Frodo at Bag-End, and everything works.
  Despite the amount of space I'm dedicating to this complaint, it's just a quibble. I love this film unabashedly and I could easily watch the whole thing every six months and not get tired of it. I don't do this, of course, because I'm afraid I'll get tired of it.
  Here's a thought. Is the 'Lord of the Rings' the best film ever made in which the fate of the world is at stake? Not that it has much competition. 'Dr. Strangelove,' maybe? Look at the Sight and Sound Polls or Ebert's Great Movies or The Spectator's 50 Essential Movies or a dozen other 'Best Of' lists and you'll see a paucity of worlds in peril. Coincidence? I don't think so, but I'm not sure why.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movies, movies, movies...

  I started this blog back in January as a way to keep my writing skills sharp. In the meantime, I've been writing other stuff and been neglecting my faithful readers. (Note: I have no idea if I have any readers, but I'm pretending I have at least two.)
  A few months ago I signed up for Flickchart and discovered it to be a fun way to simultaneously catalog my movies and rank them in order of my favorites. And considering how long it's been since my last post, I think I now have an excuse to write some more and Flickchart is my springboard. I'm going to blog about my top ten films, at least one a week starting with....

 10. Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Ben Hecht.
Starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Leopoldine Konstantin.
  Now, let's talk McGuffins. If you like McGuffins as much as I like McGuffins (hell, I even like typing the word 'McGuffin') then this is the film for you. What's a McGuffin, you ask? A McGuffin is anything in a story that drives the plot and it doesn't matter what it is. If you need an example, look no farther than the uranium ore from Notorious. You know, the stuff in the wine bottles? I don't blame you for forgetting, in fact, if you get to that scene and you actually care what's in the bottles, you're missing the point.
  This is but one of my theories about what separates good filmmakers from bad ones. It's a complex issue, but it boils down to this: The bad filmmakers try to make you care about the uranium ore, while the good ones know that it's about Alicia and Devlin and Alex and Alex's creepy mother.
  I could go on and I probably should, but what else remains to be said about this film? The three minute kiss that really isn't. Cary Grant as his most ambiguously slimy/charming (sorry, 'Suspicion'). The unbearable tension at the bottom of a cup of coffee.

  See you next week for number 9.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Keeping the Top Ten Ball Aloft

Tyler Cowen started this a couple weeks ago, listing the 10 books that influenced him the most. And he asked other bloggers to join in. So here goes (not necessarily in any order):
1. Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society by Peter McWilliams.
This book changed everything for me after I read it in my early twenties. I'm not going into much detail because the title speaks for itself, I think. I am the cranky libertarian I am today thanks to McWilliams's book.
2. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George F. Will.
This book made me a baseball fan.Before reading this, I had never thought of sport as being a cerebral endeavor. I started to see baseball as something I can think about. And I never stopped thanks to....
3. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James.
I became a sabermetrian after reading this and I never looked back.Thinking critically about baseball has made it so much more fun for me, that I pity those who just don't get that. It's a version of the rainbow problem; some believe that knowing that they're 'just' refracted light a couple feet in front of you makes it impossible to appreciate the beauty of a rainbow. Not me. Knowing more about something allows me to enjoy it more. And Bill James's great writing helped show me that.
4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This is the first classic I ever read that I actually liked. (Full disclosure: I have since gone back and reread many books I was forced to read in school and enjoyed many of them.) Thanks to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, I learned to appreciate classic literature.
5. Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith.
I grew up in a Catholic household and was never encouraged to think about my religion, but that didn't stop me. When I was 18 I stopped going to church, and then 2 years later, I realized that I did not believe in the supernatural and let it all go.This book didn't make me an atheist, but this make me feel a little less alone about being an atheist by helping me realize that I could use reason to fill the hole that was once filled with superstition.
6. Kingdom Come by Mark Waid, Alex Ross and Todd Klein.
I was a big ol' comic book nerd in my youth and I quit sometime around 1987 because they stopped being fun and I was getting too old (or so I thought). About 10 years later a buddy of mine lent me his copy of Kingdom Come and I realized how fun and cool and grown-up comics could be. And I'm back to being a big ol' comics nerd.
7. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov.
I'd read Shakespeare before (for school), but was never a huge fan. I was, however, a huge fan of Isaac Asimov (see below) and the completist in me jumped at the chance to buy this book. And I have never read the bard the same way again. Every Shakespeare play or film I've seen since is informed by Asimov's analysis.
8. On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
This was the first great book I ever read about the craft of writing. (Don't blame Zinsser for any missteps I've made in this post.) Since then, I keep the lessons from this book in mind every time I sit down to write. I've read many other books on writing since, and some, like Strunk and White may do a better job. But Zinsser was first.
9. Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge by William Poundstone.
I read this in college, when I was, basically, still learning how to think. Poundstone introduced me to many intellectual concepts--the use of paradox, induction vs. deduction, what it means to know something etc.--that are still in my toolbox. And it's a great read.
10. Isaac Asimov's Essay Collections.
Not a single book, but a series of sorts. I read a ton of these essays as a kid and from these I learned to love reason and logic (Hello? The name of the blog?). I learned to love science. I learned to love great writing. These are mostly science essays, but their subjects are all over the place, history, literature, etymology, politics.... Much of the science is dated by now, but I don't care; the writing is as crisp and lively as ever and Asimov manages to explain tricky concepts without being condescending or going over the reader's head. But more important, he infuses his topics with such humanity that it made me want to learn as much as I could. And I've never stopped. Thanks, Isaac.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Birthday Boy

 Happy Birthday, James Madison! Or as the kids call him, J-Mad.*

*This isn't true.

 I guess I like Madison so much because I'm a big fan of the unjustly forgotten. In baseball we have guys like Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and maybe Honus Wagner. Players that casual fans may not be familiar with, but who were among the best of their time. In science we have Robert Hooke, James Clark Maxwell and Ignaz Semmelweiss, all of whom changed the way we live.
 Madison falls into that category, as well. One of the most important founders, he was the principal architect of the Constitution, the driving force behind the Bill of Rights and (as evidenced by his contribution to the Federalist) one of the most astute political theorists of his time. Yet, he has zero cachet in the popular consciousness, which is too bad because he had as much influence as, say, Jefferson or Adams.
Anyway, Little Jemmy, this one goes out to you. Happy 249th. And many more.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

James Madison's Memorial is Weeping*

 This week Iowan Christopher Handley was sentenced to 6 months in prison for owning manga. Well, that wasn't what he was charged with, but that's what he's going down for. He was jailed for "possessing drawings [DRAWINGS!] of children being sexually abused." In the United States we have this thing called a First Amendment which states that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press...." (recalled that from memory; just saying). Not for this guy. Handley pleaded guilty under "Title 18, United States Code, Section 1466A(b)(1), which prohibits the possession of any type of visual depiction, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct that is obscene." DRAWINGS!
 For a history of the case go here.
 For a way more eloquent defense of smut and "icky speech" go here.

*Oh, wait, Madison doesn't have a memorial. (Well, OK, he has a memorial building in Washington DC.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Doomed I tells ya!

 The other day I was in a Borders bookstore among the biographies and a man and a teenage boy walked into the section. The kid was about 14 and I from his demeanor, I think the man was his divorced father. Anyway, we'll call them 'father' and 'son'. From the conversation, I gleaned that the son was doing a report on a famous person. (For the record, I wasn't trying to listen, but they were speaking loudly enough that if you were in the bios you could hear.) And the conversation went something like this:
 Dad: "Here's a book on Franklin Roosevelt."
 Son: "Who the hell is Franklin Roosevelt?"
 Repeat for the next minute or so, just with names like John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and Marie Curie. And the kid had this slow sing-song voice that gave me the impression that speaking was a mental strain.He knew celebrities like George Lopez, but Dad wasn't having any of that. Junior knew who Houdini was, but balked when Dad showed him a book that looked maybe 300 pages long. Junior said "Thass... way... too... big."
  All the while, I'm standing there in a corner where two bookshelves intersect looking at Ron Chernow's bio of Alexander Hamilton (Who... the... hell... is... Alexander... Hamilton?). I didn't want to leave because I was working like a crazy monkey to not smile or laugh at this poor imbecile and if I turned around they might see. After they left to look for the autobiographies (the kid misread "Audiobooks") I escaped.
 If Whitney Houston is right and children are our future, we're screwed.
 By the way, I didn't get the Chernow, because I remembered that I have an unread Hamilton biography by Richard Brookhiser sitting at home. Too bad, it looked pretty good.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goddam phonies

Aw, man. J.D. Salinger died. No more new novels! Plus he left a party of five orphans behind.*

*I'm sorry.

Seriously, I wonder if we're in for a deluge of previously unpublished writings. After all, I hope he was doing something this whole time. I'm looking forward to all the articles and essays about Salinger's literary influence. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read any Salinger, which is funny because as Nick Hornby once pointed out you could go through his oeuvre in about a week. Sad, really. I'm working on Crowley's Little, Big right now, so maybe I'll try Nine Stories when I'm done.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


 Just received Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time, the 3rd volume in the Atomic Robo series. Verdict: Robo-tastic. Not as good as Vol. 1, which was Robo-riffic; but better than Vol. 2, which was merely Robo-licious.

  For the uninitiated, Atomic Robo is a comic written by Brian Clevinger and drawn by Scott Wegener. And it's fun and awesome. Try it, kids. It's the story of Atomic Robo--get it?--a sapient robot built by Nikola Tesla in the '20s who punches dinosaurs, feuds with Stephen Hawking, and blows up Nazis.

 Vol. 3 follows Robo in the 20's, 50's, 70's and 00's as he fights a nonlinear, non euclidean extradimensional cosmic horror that wants to eat the earth. Along the way, he gets help from Charles Fort, Carl Sagan and Robo's own Action Scientists. And, boy howdy, is it fun. Wegener's art makes a mouthless robot expressive using nothing but body language and eye-covers. Clevinger's writing is top notch, with a nice mix of slapstick, pulpy action, and dry wit. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Senator make poopie! Yay!

 Sorry to start in on American politics. But after Senator Harry Reid's gaffe (basically using the word "Negro" about 4 decades after it lost acceptability) I think it's time U.S. Congresspeople should earn their jobs. They should have to take a test every election year and pass it to be eligible for reelection. Tests with questions like: How do you pronounce Kim Jong Il? This could have eliminated the late Jesse Helms (R-NC), who repeatedly pronounced the North Korean's name as "Kim Jong the Second". When staffers made cheat sheets that read "Kim Jong Ill" Helms started saying "Kim Jong the Third." Let's give him a break, after all, he was only the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

 What the hell? How about Ted Stevens (R-AK) describing the internet as a "series of tubes." Stevens was the author of the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006.

 Tired of me picking on Republicans? How 'bout Democrat Joe Biden's repeated brushes* with plagiarism.

 The point is, making these bozos take a competency test might either a) force them to learn something or b) force them out of office. I'm thinking about a test that covers current affairs, scientific literacy, societal norms, cultural literacy, etc. Think the SATs, but for the people who write the laws and policies for a major world power.            

Monday, January 11, 2010

Holmes and Gardens

[Minor Sherlock Holmes spoilers ahead]

Okay, I saw Sherlock Holmes a couple weeks ago and for the most part I liked it. Now, I am a serious Holmes nerd and had correspondingly serious trepidations about this flick because the trailers showed such things as Watson punching Holmes innaface, Holmes chained to a bed naked, Holmes flinging a hammer at a mook, etc. This images really made me concerned about how true the movie would be to the stories.

I have to say it was more faithful than I anticipated with one major exception: Sherlock Holmes naked is just wrong. Sorry, ladies (and some guys).

My biggest beef, though, with the movie is the plot. It suffers from the 'Turn it up to eleven' syndrome; that is, the writers and director think the only way to make us care is to put ALL OF LONDON (AND MAYBE THE WORLD) in peril.

I first came to articulate this syndrome after seeing the first Hellboy movie. I hadn't read much Hellboy, but my two favorite stories are the one in which HB has to bargain with the fair folk for the life of a baby and the one in which HB has to slay a nest of vampires at Christmas to save the soul of an old woman. And when I saw the movie, I compared these stories and I realized that damn near every superhero or video game movie does this: the makers have the plot be some variation on SAVING THE WORLD.

Boy, does it get dull.

The movies that do this make, I think, two opposing, yet complementary, mistakes:
1) The characters are altered to make them more relatable to the masses. And
2) The plots are engineered to appeal to fanboys.

What if you reversed that, if you make the characters as close as possible to the ones the fans love and place these characters in a situation that everyone can relate to? Then you get The Dark Knight or Iron Man or Spider-Man 2. If you go the other way you get Tomb Raider or Constantine.

Let's look at Hellboy. What if the first movie had been about HB journeying into Faerie to look for, say, a stolen baby? We could still have seen many of the same elements the actual film had. We could still have had Myers, the rookie agent assigned as HB's keeper. Maybe at some point he says "Why are we going to so much trouble to find this kid? Is he important, somehow?" And then HB turns to Myers, closes in, squints, and replies in Ron Perlman's rumble, "He is to his parents." Who wouldn't be in the big red guy's corner right then? Then, we follow as HB and co. go save a baby. We could even still get the giant clockwork deathtraps, the evil puppets, the fighty-fighty, Jeffrey Tambor, etc. It may not be perfect, but I think more people would have been behind this movie--and it was still pretty darn good.

Back to Sherlock Holmes. The most famous Holmes story is probably Hound of the Baskervilles and it's about Holmes and Watson protecting some schmuck. Sure, Holmes is frequently hired by Scotland Yard or the Crown, but just as often he's engaged by a puzzled or frightened private citizen who comes to him for help. And he does (usually). And I think that's what we need to see in a Sherlock Holmes movie: Holmes helping people.

Post the first

Hi, and welcome to Reason is a Verb. I can't count the number of times someone has said to me "Wow! You're really opinionated but articulate, you should have a blog." So, here you go, random strangers on the bus.