OTI Holiday Gift Guide 2011

Overthinking It’s staff writers pick their favorite Holiday Gifts for 2011.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the time where the Overthinking It writers highlight their favorite pop cultural possessions for your consumption and enjoyment, and you support the site you love by clicking on our links to Amazon.com so we get a tiny kickback from whatever you buy (whether it’s what we recommend or not. Ho ho ho… ‘Tis the season for multi-level marketing!

And remember… you can always buy OTI-branded merch in our very own store! Now… on to the presents.

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Lee & Mlawski: Community Season 1

Somewhere, there is an NBC executive who weighs the fate of Community in his (it’s probably a dude) hands. He’s probably a soulless corporate stooge who wouldn’t recognize brilliant art, even if it reached out from the glove compartment of his Lexus and smacked him across his smug face. But he’s heard that this Community show is critically praised and gives NBC some credibility among that elusive but coveted “geek” demographic. He looks at the ratings numbers. They are not good. He looks at his expensive Cartier watch. It is fancy. Then he looks at the DVD sales figures. They are better than they would be if you didn’t buy them for yourself or your loved ones. He considers this piece of information along with everything else he’s factoring into his decision. And maybe, just maybe, he does the right thing and lets Community live for another season because that DVD sales figure was higher than it would be if you didn’t buy Community: Season 1 for yourself or your loved ones.

Still not convinced? Check out Mlawski’s Half-Assed Infographic (click for larger version).

Community Infographic

Shechner: Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman Season 1 and Season 2

Each passover, we Hebrews sing the children’s song Dayenu–loosely translated: “It would have been enough.” Diyanu’s one of those songs with cumulative verses, ala’ “Old MacDonald had a farm,” but with the MacDonald role being played by Yahweh, his farm replaced with dynastic Egypt, and the animals replaced by His numerous miracles.  I guess the Jews are like, farm-hands or something.  Anyway, as the song continues, the progression of verses extoll the bounty of miracles gifted upon The Chosen People as they were freed from Egypt, each more glorious than its predecessor.  For years now, I’ve thought that this form of praise–bizarrely steeped in a kind of  passive aggressive worship–would be perfect in all kinds of other scenarios, too.  Observe:

If Science had only given us a revolution in modern physics, Dayenu!
If only the Science Channel had decided to make a new miniseries of documentaries highlighting these developments, Dayenu!
If only they’d green-lit the series with one of the largest production budgets ever used for scientific documentaries,Dayenu!
If only they’d given it an incredibly slick presentation style, steeped in beautiful cinematography, lighting and eye-popping CGI, Dayenu!
If they’d only scored interviews with the best and brightest scientists, and evoked from them fascinating descriptions about their work, Dayenu!
If they’d only gotten Morgan Freeman to narrate the series, Dayenu!

But lo!  Science (and the Science Channel) did all of these things, and framed it to appear as though Morgan Freeman himself had spent years pondering these fundamental questions underlying the whole of reality.
(DAY-YE-NU! &c.)

Yes, this not just an exquisitely produced, provocative, fun and entertaining documentary series about physics (and sometimes, metaphysics and biology).  Through the Wormhole does such a quality job of presenting its host and narrator as the central creative mind behind the project that I honestly can’t tell if Morgan Freeman’s just playing a part. Could it possibly be that he’s actually spent his life thinking about and reading up on the nature of particle physics, of quantum entanglement or of the origins of life?  Man, I have no idea, but I want to believe it.  I want to believe that one day, our paths will happen to cross, and after I finish gushing about how awesome Glory was, he’ll say, “Thanks, Dave.  Now, I have some questions regarding RNA catalysis that I’d like to ask you about.”


Belinkie: The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words

Needless to say, one must show discretion in the giving of this gift. It should not, for instance, be a part of any Secret Santa situation. But for the right person, this will be a highly enlightening and amusing read. This 164 page volume is written by Jim Dawson, whose  resume also features Who Cut the Cheese?: A Cultural History of the Fart, Blame It on the Dog: A Modern History of the Fart, and of course, Did Somebody Step on a Duck: A Natural History of the Fart. So basically, The Compleat MF represents a bold departure for him.

This is an exercise in the very best traditions of overthinking stuff, and you will never swear the same way again. Did you know that the insult dates back to the 5th century BC? Did you know that the English version rose to prominence through the African-American community? (Dawson cites a theory about how it ties into slavery.) Did you know that this book contains an entire chapter on Samuel L. Jackson?

An entire motherfucking chapter.

Perich: The Hunger Games Trilogy

I suspect this movie is not going to catch on the same way Twilight did. Don’t get me wrong; it will still be the smash teen action hit of 2012. It will put Jennifer Lawrence on the map, as well as Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. But suburban housewives won’t swoon over Gale and Peeta the way they do over Edward and Jacob. Twelve-year-old girls won’t flood archery classes. The three-fingered salute won’t catch on among America’s youth.

You ought to read these books anyway. Two reasons:

First, you want to participate in the cultural conversation. You want to know what goes on with American youth. You want to learn what all the fuss is about. For once, you can be ahead of the curve.

Second, these books deserve to be more successful than the Twilight series. With all due respect to Ms. Meyer, the Twilight series teaches young girls to let the men in their lives direct them, stage suicide attempts to hear their crush’s voice in their heads, and to abandon your past life to move in with your boyfriend’s weird family of addicts. The Hunger Games teaches young girls to provide for their families, stick up for what they believe in, and shoot their enemies in the face. Rock on, Katniss Everdeen.

Fenzel: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back the horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future in strength, courage, hope and love.

Sir Francis Drake

There are a lot of great video games out there this holiday season, but for the Overthinker in your life who leans in the glorious and highly esteemed direction of history nerd-dom, as well as the direction of lovingly overwrought premises, bankable franchises, and theatrical fistfighting action – and who also happens to have a Playstation 3 there is no better new game on the market right now than Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

The franchise takes a premise worthy of a Hollywood syndicated action hour – our hero is a fictional descendant of the famous-but-not-Columbus-calibur English explorer Sir Francis Drake on a series of quests for Lost Cities and other assorted dusty relics and secret conspiracies – this time taking it on a globe-trotting quest around the middle east that vibes heavily on Indiana Jones and the Last CrusadeThe Mummy, and a lot of other loveable, pseudo-imperialistic, post-pulp, self-conscious High Adventure.

Uncharted games are third-person adventure/shooter/etc. games that play out in big, sweeping stories, jumping in and out of gameplay elements while also showing you what amounts to a very long, very professionally put together adventure movie. It’s a lot more Max Payne than Grand Theft Auto – don’t expect endless free-roaming, don’t expect top-level cutthroat multiplayer, but do expect an entertainment on the cutting edge of its medium, with lots of style, flash, art, depth, action and historical references.

Unlike a lot of the big-name games out right now, Uncharted games are accessible to non-gamers with a pretty low learning curve – which makes Uncharted 3 a great gift for somebody you know who really loves video games (and has a PS3), but maybe don’t keep up with the latest or play them as many hours as the hardcore gamers out there. And it can also be a good gift for hardcore gamers, because it came out during the same few-week span asBattlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3 and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, which at least as far as I can tell from the buzz, are going to be games the gamer in your life is more likely to have already purchased.

There’s something really charming about a video game that is a whole experience right out of the box, andUncharted 3 is a big one that spans the earth and makes up all sorts of nonsense about Queen Elizabeth and T.E. Lawrence. What’s not to love?

Wrather: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Four decades before the launch of Overthinking It, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim was doing some overthinking of his own, subjecting children’s fairy tales to a level of scrutiny they didn’t seem to deserve. The result, now a classic narratological work, was The Uses of Enchantment. In it, he argues that the form and content of fairy tales serve an important function for children, preparing them imaginatively to engage with life’s contradictions and vicissitudes.

Traditions are inherently nostalgic: By reenacting past events ceremonially at the same time every year, we acknowledge that history contains a continuum of like observances that stretches backward and forward, and that we are situated on that continuum, like travelers walking backward, only able to see the past. And the Christmas tradition explicitly involves telling stories—religious stories, like the one about a virgin birth; secular ones, like the one about a fat red guy coming down a chimney; and family ones, about the time your favorite uncle got drunk and…well, let’s not go there.

So it seems like a good time to reflect on stories and the uses to which we put their particular kind of enchantment. I hate to be a Scrooge, and I know a lot of people like Phineas and Ferb, but I don’t think it will be controversial to suggest that show is perhaps somewhat less profound than, say, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.

So curl up on a cold winter’s night with this book, and give a thought to what kind of stories you want your life to contain. We make our popular culture and it, Bettelheim demonstrates, makes us.

Stokes: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

This is quite possibly the most overthought book in existence. Not using our tagline definition of giving something more attention than it deserves (which would be impossible, because what deserves more attention than food?), but rather the actual unstated mission statement of this website, which is taking something everyone knows about, in this case food, and approaching it from a completely off-kilter intellectual angle. On Food is not a cookbook.  It is something like a history, and something like an encyclopedia, and something like a science textbook. It will not teach you how to make a delicious risotto.  But it will teach you how rice makes a delicious risotto.

Furthermore, it is compulsively readable, both in short bursts and for extended sessions.  I would read it on the beach, if I didn’t think I would get looks, and on car trips if I didn’t think it would make me want to stop for a meal every twenty minutes.

If you feel like you’ve gotten to the point in your cooking where you can follow a recipe perfectly, but you’d like to move on to being able to just wander into a kitchen and make something with whatever happens to be there, this is the book for you.  If there are people in your life who like cooking, or want to like cooking, or never cook but fancy themselves foodies, this is the book for them.

That’s it for this year. Have your own favorites you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments!

5 Comments on “OTI Holiday Gift Guide 2011”

  1. Rob #

    I hate to say it, but “has stronger female characters than Twilight” is not exactly a glowing reccomendation.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Ha, fair enough. Stronger female protagonist, then?


  2. shechner OTI Staff #

    @Stokes: have you perchance seen or read anything about Nathan Myhrvold’s infamous “Modernist Cuisine”? It seems to fill the role of “Yang” to your recommendation’s “Yin:” less a treatise on the way food works, and more a 40-pound (!) manifesto on how we–armed with the powers of technology–can manipulate it. I’ve not actually seen a live flesh-and-bone copy, but reading about it in Technology Review (Go ahead: laugh if you must…) it seemed… well, entrancingly terrifying.


    • Mark #

      Speaking of Technology Review and food technology, I just saw this interesting tidbit in the Class Notes for 1952 in the September/October 2011 issue:

      Edward Stuart Olney (Course XX) passed away Feb. 4 in Peoria, AZ. … His career was spent principally with Kraft Foods in Glenview, IL. A notable achievement there was to engineer the marshmallow bits in Lucky Charms cereal.

      So next time you eat some Lucky Charms take a moment of silence to thank the contribution of Ed Olney.

      If you’ve got a stack of unread alumni magazines from whichever school you attended, take a minute and read through some of the updates for the classes from 60-70 years ago. They’re mostly obituaries but have lots of great bits like this.


  3. Leigh #

    A2 Hosting is great. They’re the cheapest host that offers PostgreSQL and PostGIS databases.


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