Sauce Castillo & The Mondegreen

April 8, 2015

Nik Stauskas is still coming to terms with his new nickname — and how he got it.  The NBA rookie has gone from Sacramento Kings bench-warmer to full-on marketing sensation in a week, all because of a little misunderstanding.

Kings coach George Karl put Stauskas into a game last week against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. When Stauskas took his first shot, those watching on TV noticed the broadcast’s closed captioning system having some trouble with his name.  Nik Stauskas somehow became — in white text at the top of the screen — Sauce Castillo.

People watching at home caught it right away.  It was funny.  It became a thing.   And just last night, Kings fans celebrated Sauce Castillo Night in Sacramento.  It’s only a matter of time before they change the name on the back of his jersey.

Sauce Castillo is the latest example of what I call “The Anxiety of Inference” — our assumption that we can count on the systems we’ve built to infer what we mean to say and do.

Machine learning and predictive analytics have become so sophisticated, we expect our phones will guess our next word before we type it, our cars will know where we’re going before we put it in the nav, our restaurants will know what we want to eat before we order it.  If you’re a smartphone, car or restaurant, that’s a lot of pressure.

When it comes to failed inference, Damn You Autocorrect is by far the champ.  An infinite collection of smartphones’ hilarious mistaken presumptions, the site’s become a rabbit hole for all of us who appreciate the beauty of computers who — try as they may — don’t quite understand us yet.

To be fair, human beings can be just as guilty.  This VH1 site is dedicated to how much we’ve misunderstood our favorite songs.  And Jimmy Fallon’s new show, Lip Sync Battle (Thursdays 10pm/9c on Spike TV), is filled with big stars pouring their hearts into live performances of their favorite songs — sometimes with mistaken lyrics.

When a word is misheard or misinterpreted, whether by human or computer, it creates new meaning, and that’s called a mondegreen.  Here are some clsssic examples:

Infographic: Top Most Commonly Misunderstood Lyrics in Music

Sometimes we commit so completely to our misunderstanding of a song’s lyrics — even after we’ve been corrected — we can’t imagine the song any other way.  That’s called mumpsimus.

A few years ago, I gave a talk called The Poetry of Misunderstanding. I argued that mishearing, misremembering and misunderstanding sometimes lead to magical consequences.  The idea that the new thing that’s created when something gets lost in translation…is sometimes more beautiful, exciting and profound than the original thing we misunderstood.

Holden Caufield’s misinterpretation Robert Burns’ poem, Comin’ Thro The Rye, lies at the heart of The Catcher In The Rye.  Jimi Hendrix loved misquoted lyrics of his songs so much, he often performed them that way in concert.  And then there’s the famous mistranscription of Fall Out Boy’s hit song, Sugar We’re Doing Down, which I’d argue makes the song infinitely more enjoyable.

Now technology has given us another reason to laugh and celebrate, this time in the form of an unremarkable, unwitting rookie from the Sacramento Kings, who may never achieve a thing on the court, but who shall live on forever as… a sauce.


Underground Poems On A Rainy Day

October 11, 2014

It’s a rainy Saturday and The Best American Poetry blog features a story on Boston introducing poetry into its mass transit system.

Subway poetry isn’t new.  From the PERverse to the SUBverse, graffiti poetry has always lit up the underground.  Here in New York, “Poetry In Motion” is the formal approach powered by the Poetry Society of America, resuscitated by the MTA in 2012.  The Poetry Society thoughtfully (if not carefully) surfaces bright lines from classic poems and clever turns from poets whose subjects reflect the rich diversity of the city.

However, probably to conform with the MTA’s mission to offend no one, poems are presented in benign rectangles with a “safe” visual aesthetic, certain to add nothing.  Its designs are often childishly reductive or unnecessarily obvious.

(The worst offense of NYC’s subway program, by far, is that it often publishes poems by Billy Collins.)

Boston is improving the model.  Its interpretive design approach serves to enhance, add dimension and attract commuters who might otherwise have their heads stuck in the same device they’ve been staring at all day.  Even when sad or contemplative, like this one from Amy Lowell, they fit perfectly into today’s wet doldrums:


Boston is risking more than other cities because its poems often lean head first into the city’s most raw and vulnerable spaces. Like this one, called “Marathon,” by Nick Flynn:

The ambition behind both efforts and their corresponding websites feels good to just about any urban dweller open to a little something different in the cracks of the day.  Why not?

A chance to stop and consider, in the dark wifi-less patches, more train traffic ahead of us.



“Live In The Layers”

July 14, 2014

Stanley Kunitz published this poem when he was 73 years old:

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.  

Stanley Kunitz1905 - 2006


A Search For Who To Learn From

January 4, 2014

In the next to last poem he ever wrote, A Thanksgiving,  W.H. Auden pays homage to the voices without whom, he reckons, “I couldn’t have managed / even my weakest of lines.” 

It’s quite a list:

     – Hardy, Thomas and Frost, for inspiring his early adolescent verse

     – Yeats and Graves for a young lover, discovering the center of the universe isn’t exactly him

     – Hitler and Stalin, who “forced” questions of divinity

     – Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis, who guided the poet “back to belief”

Then comes the poet’s turn towards his own uncertain future, as the aging Auden, already a beloved master, asks: “Who are the tutors I need?”  A question the most profoundly accomplished among us never stop asking.  

We’re each on our own desperate, unending search — not just for wisdom, but for the sages generous enough to share it.  Not just a search for learning, but a search for who to learn from.

Sometimes it’s awkward, like that afternoon I spent in my office with inventor Dean Kamen, who I was dying to meet and learn from.  Turned out, Dean was far more interested in excoriating me for my ineptitude at effecting global change than anything else.  Unpleasant as it was, Dean is our generation’s Ben Franklin, and I continue to learn from him.

My own list of teachers is long and quite an array.  Filmmakers, poets, artists, musicians, curators, an evolutionary biologist, a few bankers, countless entrepreneurs and investors, journalists, philosophers, bloggers, my parents, an uncle….

I make time every month to consult individually with a smaller set, what I call my Council of Elders, a group of advisors who’ve been through what I’m experiencing many times over, and who’ve come out the other side with a perspective I’m decades from achieving on my own.

Here’s Auden’s poem (written the year he died, the year I was born), in its entirety:


A Thanksgiving

When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.

Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.

Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me, was Brecht.

Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.

Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.

Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and

Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that — he never could prove
Newton led science astray.

Fondly I ponder You all:
without You I couldn’t have managed
even my weakest of lines.

                                             – W.H. Auden, 1973


What Life Insurance Meant To McDonald’s, JC Penney & Stanford

December 6, 2013 — 0

It’s that weird time of year when people seem to make financial plans.  Including life insurance?  Guess so, but is there really any time of year when people think about life insurance?

Life insurance isn’t exactly top of mind; USA Today calls it “the most ignored in fianncial planning.”  Dare you to try and find a life insurance salesman under the age of 50.

I recently looked up the nice older gentleman who sold me my life insurance policy 15 years ago, when I was running my own production company in Los Angeles.  I gave him a call…

…he’s no longer with us.

Life insurance is still pitched today exactly as he pitched it to me:  “This here, young man, is a sound financial planning tool.”

I bought some for the same reason Forbes says everyone else buys it: I really love my wife, I always will, and I want her to be taken care of if I depart sooner than we anticipate.

After I bought it, I forgot about it.  For like a decade.  I can’t be the only one.

What got me to sit up and look more closely at the value of life insurance, recently, was when my brother-in-law — the youngest life insurance salesman I’ve ever met — walked me through the list of companies that wouldn’t exist today had their founders not leveraged their policies to give them a second life:

Ray Kroc borrowed against his life insurance policy to cover payroll and finance the first Ronald MacDonald advertising campaign


Stanford University owes its founding to the life insurance Leland Stanford collected when his 15 year-old son died in 1884


 JC Penney might need some help again these days, but it made it through the Great Depression thanks to James Cash Penney’s ability to borrow against his life insurance policy to meet payroll and keep operations flowing

I’m betting most of us, even the children of economists, weren’t raised to ponder life insurance as an instrument of business entrepreneurship.  And yet, when you think about it more broadly, is there a more compelling bet both for and against oneself, than life insurance?

Surely the idea of buying life insurance now to one day leverage in one’s business to cover payroll or finance debt is odd.  But in some ways,  “Two things of opposite natures seem to depend / On one another….,” as the most famous life insurance salesman of all time, and the only one to win a Pulitzer Prize, Wallace Stevens, once wrote.

I’d imagine Kroc, Stanford, Penney and many 21st century entrepreneurs might recognize themselves in these lines from Stevens’ Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction:

We reason of these things with later reason

And we make of what we see, what we see clearly

And have seen, a place dependent on ourselves.


Fathers’ Day Poem by Bob Hicok

June 16, 2013 — 0

O my pa-pa

By Bob Hicok

Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop.
They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs
and wives. We thought they didn’t read our stuff,
whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,
or those that end, and he was silent as a carp,
or those with middles which, if you think
of the right side as a sketch, look like a paunch
of beer and worry, but secretly, with flashlights
in the woods, they’ve read every word and noticed
that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex
and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello
from the top of a hill at dusk. Theirs
is the revenge school of poetry, with titles like
“My Yellow Sheet Lad” and “Given Your Mother’s Taste
for Vodka, I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Mine.”
They’re not trying to make the poems better
so much as sharper or louder, more like a fishhook
or electrocution, as a group
they overcome their individual senilities,
their complete distaste for language, how cloying
it is, how like tears it can be, and remember
every mention of their long hours at the office
or how tired they were when they came home,
when they were dragged through the door
by their shadows. I don’t know why it’s so hard
to write a simple and kind poem to my father, who worked,
not like a dog, dogs sleep most of the day in a ball
of wanting to chase something, but like a man, a man
with seven kids and a house to feed, whose absence
was his presence, his present, the Cheerios,
the PF Flyers, who taught me things about trees,
that they’re the most intricate version of standing up,
who built a grandfather clock with me so I would know
that time is a constructed thing, a passing, ticking fancy.
A bomb. A bomb that’ll go off soon for him, for me,
and I notice in our fathers’ poems a reciprocal dwelling
on absence, that they wonder why we disappeared
as soon as we got our licenses, why we wanted
the rocket cars, as if running away from them
to kiss girls who looked like mirrors of our mothers
wasn’t fast enough, and it turns out they did
start to say something, to form the words hey
or stay, but we’d turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leave, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.