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Land Wars in Asia, Sicilians, and Buildings in the UK

29 May

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”1

-The Princess Bride (Movie)

My wife and I have got hooked on watching shows on the idiot box2 about restoring old buildings in the UK. There’s Restoration Home, which we like, and Restoration Man, which we like even better. (The first seasons of the latter have this cool Monty Pythonesque animation, that is, sadly, absent in later seasons.)

animation

Gotta love that animation

North America lacks any really old buildings, but the UK apparently has scads of ‘em, some of which date back to before the time of Shakespeare. Now, some UK folks with more enthusiasm than sense (or money) fall in love with one of these derelict, falling down hulks and vow to restore them, turning an old ice house, or water tower, or church, or mill into the home of their dreams. We’ve watched multiple episodes of these shows, and this next bit is for you if you’re one of those UK folks bitten by the “I can restore this old ruin” bug:

This next bit:
Run away! This will make you crazy! It will cost more than you ever dreamed, take far longer than you thought, and the UK planning commission folks will be arbitrary- they’ll impose rules that make absolutely no sense! Build a new house or buy an existing one – it’ll cost less! Take a cold shower! Sober up! Run away!

OK, if you’re not one of the UK folks bitten by the restoration bug, I can explain. Watching a few of these shows doesn’t make me an authority, but patterns have emerged. The restorers frequently say the same things:

1. “We have budget of X thousand pounds to complete the project.” (Double it!)

2. “We will be in by Christmas.” (It’s not gonna happen!)

3. “I think the planning commission will accept my proposed design and extension.” (These folks are bonkers! They’ll reject stuff for no apparent reason!)

OK, I’m not against preserving the past – I like the fact that there’re folks willing to take on these arduous projects. However, if preservation comes at the cost of peoples’ mental and economic health, then some of these old structures can sink back into the bogs from whence they came, in my humble opinion.

Many of these old structures are “listed”, which means that they’re part of a national registry of old buildings. You can’t do anything you want to these buildings – a commission has to give the go-ahead. Some of these commissions seem reasonable, while others seem downright despotic. An episode we watched recently (shot in 2008, I think) showed a couple with four daughters who restored a building that dated from 1632. The timbers were in good shape, and they’d installed a beautiful new thatched roof. The rub was that the existing structure was inadequate for six people, so they’d designed a two-story extension to be connected to the original building. (This is apparently not uncommon and such additions are often approved if something, say, a glass-enclosed corridor, separates the old from the new.) For no discernible reason, the planning commission dictated that the extension’s size be reduced by 40% and that it not be as tall as the existing structure. If this were, say, Tokyo, where every square foot of space is precious, this might make sense. However, this was a rural part of England, with no other buildings in the vicinity. Go figure.

This couple were lucky in that the original timbers were still in good shape. Many of these folks find to their horror that deathwatch beetles3 have eaten the wood, or the house is plagued with ‘rising damp’ (whatever that is) or some other unforeseen calamity.

Having said all this, the restorers are often amazing. Experienced builders may find themselves in over their heads, while novices determined to make a go of it often learn quickly and do the work themselves.

For me, the appeal of these shows is in seeing several years of hard ‘graft’ (in the UK it apparently means ‘work’, but in the US anyway, it means ‘corruption’) distilled down to about 40 minutes of screen time in which we follow a couple (usually) from the rapture of finding their dream ruin, though trials and setbacks (on the job site, in the pocket book, the relationship, and/or in the bureaucracy) to the payoff where we get to behold the completed structure. Or not – in several episodes (a Restoration Man with a hapless chap trying to restore an ancient tower comes to mind), the work never even gets off the ground.

As usual, I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say that I find the concept of a “dream home” a bit dubious. Having a nice view, or energy efficiency, or clean tasteful lines all make a house a more pleasant place to live. However, in the end, it all comes down to the people in it.

1. Only slightly less well known than that is “Never restore a listed building in the UK when your sanity and finances are on the line.”

2. A lot of these episodes are on You Tube, but we’re watchin’ You Tube on our idiot box. Is this You Tube stuff bootlegged? I have no idea.

3. Xestobium rufovillosum, if you wish to be pedantic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathwatch_beetle

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Smarter Than the Rat

1 May

“The more weapons you posses,
the greater the chaos in your country.”
-Lao Tzu

I haven’t posted anything in a while, an’ it’s ’cause I wanted to write something about guns.  However, this policy stuff is not in my normal books-and-movies stomping ground, hence I dawdled.

I gather that most people don’t care about the issue one way or the other. I base that on the fact that the NRA holds so much sway – most Americans disagree with the NRA’s extremist views, yet the NRA continues to get its way.

I once knew a veteran who related a dream about being back in Viet Nam. To his surprise, a rat was in charge of everything. “Why is the rat in charge?”, he asked his buddies. “After all, we’re smarter than the rat.” I don’t remember the rest of the story, but in a similar vein, I have often wondered the same thing about the NRA.

If there was a contest for being the most contemptible organization in America, the NRA would win (despite stiff competition from multi-level marketing companies.) Their rhetoric about freedom, the Second Amendment, law-abiding citizens, and the like is just a smokescreen; the NRA is nothing more than a flack for the weapons industry. The “Brand Partners” listed on the NRA’s Web Site include Ruger, Hornaday, Smith and Wesson, Mossberg, and Sig Sauer, and that’s only some of them. The organization claims it’s “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” Why the plural form?

nugent

Distinguished NRA Board Member Ted

As I write, more than a month has passed since the March for Our Lives. I know that the young people from Marjorie Stoneman High School have rattled folks at the NRA by the amount of invective being hurled at them. These students have obviously struck a nerve. News stories have quoted NRA board member Ted Nugent as saying “These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.” Wow, Ted. Irrefutable. I never knew that you were the arbiter of such things. I don’t think that Nugent has any integrity, though; he famously declared “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I Will Either Be Dead or in Jail by this time next year.” Obama was re-elected, but Ted still hasn’t delivered on his promise.

For me, it comes down to pointing out the obvious:

1. The Second Amendment does not describe a right to own any weapon you want and carry it wherever you want.  Even the Supreme Court’s Heller decision (much lauded by the NRA) states:

“Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

The Heller decision went against over 100 years of jurisprudence on firearms, but even Heller is not a blank check.

2. You don’t need a military-style semi-automatic weapon to protect yourself.  You might want such a weapon, you might even own such a weapon. But you don’t need it.

3. The absurdity of “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is just plain (I don’t like to work blue, but I’m afraid I must here) cow poop. The NRA came up with this one after the Sandy Hook massacre. Note how it plays into the weapons industry’s agenda – if you bought more of our guns, you’d have more weapons than the sociopath who bought our guns.

4. The absurdity of “Criminals will always be able to get guns so gun laws are useless.” Embezzlers still embezzle despite laws against embezzlement. Ponzi schemers still run Ponzi schemes despite laws against them. This argument peddles the false idea that unless a law is 100% effective, it’s bad policy.

Now, I don’t know who this is going to play out in the future, but I’m rootin’ for the students.

A bewildering mash-up of US tax legislation and a really good short story by D.H. Lawrence

8 Feb

I didn’t want to bring this up, but there’s  no gettin’ ‘round the subject of the tax legislation that passed late last year. This topic deserves mention simply because those who passed it again repeated the same hackneyed pap they always repeat after passing legislation that mostly benefits the wealthy (that is, tax cuts that benefit the rich are just what us average folks across America need most.)

money_programme

A press release from Representative Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) states: “With this bill, the typical family of four earning the median family income of $73,000 will receive a tax cut of $2,059.”1 This conveniently leaves out the fact that according to a non-partisan analysis, the average 2018 tax cut for people in the top 1% will be $37,000.2 (And if anyone takes issue with the line they’re being sold, members of Congress can always suppress the dissenting view.) 3 This “trickle down” theory was all the rage during the Reagan era, and Congress and the current White house have revived it again (not that they necessarily believe it themselves.)

However, I’m already off in the weeds.  All this policy wonk stuff doesn’t ultimately interest me.  Books and movies do, and as I read of the latest attempt to sell the American people on this shopworn idea, I kept thinking about D.H. Lawrence’s, The Rocking Horse Winner.

In this short story, an unhappy wife, an unlucky husband, two daughters, and a son, Paul are haunted by voices:

Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Paul’s frenzied rides on his rocking horse allow him to predict the winners of horse races. His winnings are considerable; through his uncle and the family lawyer he arranges for a thousand pounds to be paid to his mother on her birthday for five years. The mother renegotiates the deal to receive the entire five thousand in one lump sum. Once again, D.H. Lawrence:

And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”

The story is a good one, so I encourage you to read the whole text (and its subtext, for that matter.)  It’s often in anthologies or you can read it online 4.

In my humble opinion, real life will mirror fiction in the current round of tax cuts. The cuts will kick in, and instead of Shangri-La, the end result will be that those who benefit most will in a relatively short time go back to complaining how much they’re taxed. Big business will still grouse that US corporate tax rates are too high. Businesses will reward their stockholders, their workers not so much, the deficit will rise, and that will be that.

I’m not anti-tax; I actually like having good roads. The thing that rankles me is that not only did the Republicans (not trying to be partisan here – let’s face it, the GOP owns this one) pass the bill, they tried to sell the American people an obvious fiction.  I would have had more respect for ‘em if they’d have said “Hey America, guess what? The beneficiaries of this legislation will mostly be Big Business and the top 1%!  Your kids will end up paying for the resulting increase in the deficit! We did it!  Hooray for us!” Had they done this, I would have respected ‘em more.  Not much more – maybe 0.000125 % more. But more, nonetheless.

  1. https://walberg.house.gov/issues/taxes-spending
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-tax-plan-analysis-tpc-gop-bill-text-2017-11?op=1
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2012/11/02/non-partisan-congressional-tax-report-debunks-core-conservative-economic-theory-gop-suppresses-study/#12928b2922e6
  4. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1s3hvkcwikiUJdgRxDTb3wS79DHhUpr3gkjwlu2BNr1o/edit?pli=1

Thor Ragnarok (and agonizing about the future of cinema)

5 Nov

Thor Ragnarok begins with our hero suspended in chains and speaking essentially to us, the audience. It’s not giving anything away to tell you that he soon breaks out and lots of action ensues. I1 saw the film with my wife, our adult daughters, and our son-in-law. They all loved the picture, as did I. TR has everything that we’ve come to know and love in a Marvel movie:

Humor? Check. Thor of the comics is (or at least was – I haven’t kept up) a stick-in-the-mud. Movie Thor is a fun guy. It also has a way of pulling the rug out from under you for comic effect, as when, later in the film – oops! – don’t want to give that away…
Big name stars? Check. Thor’s nemesis in this one is played by … well, you may already know, but I don’t want to give it away. Not only that, but there’s a really fun supporting character played by … oops, never mind…
Action? Check. TR is Action City.
Guest appearances by other Marvel heroes? Check. It’s almost a given.
Great special effects? Check.
A teaser after the end credits? Check.

Thor-Ragnarok

Yeah, life’s like that sometimes.

Superhero movies tend to be lavish affairs, with filmmakers going overboard to lay on fantastic visions of other worlds, alien creatures, and futuristic technology. TR delivers in spades on this score. Any Marvel fan will come away smiling.

Here though, is where I become curmudgeonly.  I have issues with the film – well, not with TR specifically, but with franchise films in general ( 007, Alien, DC, Die Hard, Dirty Harry, Marvel, Star Wars, Underworld, you name it.)

1. Franchise films soon become formulaic (or tend to, anyway.) We know that 007’s imminent demise won’t happen. The bad guy will leave the scene certain that Bond can’t possibly escape. Bond does, of course, and the first few times, this is great. After that, it’s fodder for an Austin Powers parody.

2. Franchise films have a need to top themselves. If a lot of stuff blew up in the previous installment, more has to blow up in the next. If a car and a tanker truck collide in the first picture, the next will feature a collision between a car, a tanker truck, a motorcycle, a train, a helicopter, and an airliner.

3. The first two points lead to the third – since they become formulaic and have a need to top themselves, they essentially become vehicles for telling the same story over and over, with minor variations.

OK, maybe I’m being too crabby. That’s part of the fun, right? We know going in what to expect, but we can’t wait to see how the filmmakers will tweak the formula, adding new parameters and permutations to well-established patterns (even if it’s Jar Jar Binks.) Doesn’t classical music follow this model? Haydn would have taken this as a given (no, not the Jar Jar part – the thing about variations on well-established norms.)
Too, production values in franchise films are generally high – these pics have big budgets and it shows on the screen. What’s not to like about a well-conceived, well-photographed cinematic roller coaster ride?

I’m left though, with a certain disquiet. I worry that big-budget franchise films will and perhaps already have, resulted in a dumbing-down of cinema in general. The buzz for such movies generally includes a breathless report of the millions it cost to make it and the box office receipts after its opening weekend. That is not, in my humble opinion. and perhaps yours too, any way to judge the worth of a thing.

OK, here again, I’m off in the weeds – I really don’t know where I’m going with this. Thor Ragnarok is not Pride and Prejudice and it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – a fun (if often violent) fantasy. Tell you what – see the picture, and I’ll sit here and moan and groan about the dumbing-down of cinema and the future of motion pictures as an art form. Deal?

1 We’re eschewing the editorial ‘we’ that we normally use for this one.

Bloodline: A Show That’ll Make You Hate Yourself in the Morning

9 Sep

We try not to watch the idiot box too much, but almost against our will we binge-watched Bloodline on Netflix. It’s the story of the Rayburn family, who run a prosperous inn on one of the Florida keys.  It’s the kind of show that makes you hate yourself in the morning – a high-powered drama with a lot of secrets, crime, violence, drug use, cussin’, and enough booze to float an ocean liner.

Ben_Mendelsohn_as_Danny

Crazy good actor Ben Mendelsohn as Danny

The story begins as eldest son Danny (crazy good Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) comes home after being away for years. Danny’s arrival arouses mixed feelings in the clan, as he’s the family scapegoat.  Danny is a deeply wounded character with whom we sympathize despite his serious character flaws. (Just about every character in the show is deeply wounded and  has serious character flaws, and with a few exceptions, we sympathize with them, too.) Sissy Spacek plays Sally, the matriarch, and the late Sam Shepard is the crotchety patriarch Robert.  In addition to Danny, the Rayburn siblings consist of Kyle Chandler as Jon, a straight-laced police detective, Norbert Leo Butz as Kevin, a hot-headed, impulsive boat mechanic with really lousy judgment, and Linda Cardellini as Meg, a lawyer. The principals bring lots of acting chops to the piece, as do the supporting actors (Jamie Mc Shane, Chloë Sevigny, John Leguizamo, and Beau Bridges, to name just a few); there’s not a bad player in the bunch.  (The show has some bad actors in that they’re criminals, but even the bad actors are good actors.  By acting bad, they show how good they are and  –aw, never mind,  you get our meaning.)  The series also has some pretty talented directors, including Michael Apted, who directed an episode in the third season.

bloodline_family

Talk about your crazy, mixed-up family …

We don’t want to reveal any major plot points, but suffice it to say that Danny is in hock to some nasty folks (whom we never see but apparently, they’re out there.)  Strapped for cash, he soon takes up with old friend Eric O’Bannon (Mc Shane). They starting stealing gasoline, then move on to more lucrative pursuits.  As the story develops, Danny begins using the inn as a conduit for nefarious activity.

We like the acting, we like the directing, so what could be bad about Bloodline?  It’s the writing. OK, the writing is not really bad – sometimes it’s even excellent. Nevertheless, we sometimes got the impression that the characters were doing what the writers wanted them to do, not what they wanted to do.  Sissy Spacek’s Sally is a case in point.  At times she’s written as a loving mother who views her family through rose colored glasses.  At other times, she‘s written as a cynical, tough-as-nails woman who’ll do anything to keep from being dragged down.  Another is Marco (Enrique Murciano)  Jon’s detective partner, who pursues an investigation that may implicate Jon with a zeal that seems out of step with his character.  There are reasons he’s turned sour on the Rayburns, but to us that still did not adequately explain his Javert-like behavior.  And in the third season, John Leguizamo’s character Ozzy has an epiphany that seems to come from out of the blue.

The writers use also use dream sequences to lie to the audience; scenes beginning with shocking plot twists turn out to be dreams.  Even this is OK if used sparingly, but this trick it used enough to be annoying.  In one such sequence, Danny has a woman friend who is his alter ego or a grown-up sibling who died in childhood or something, it’s just not clear.  The series’ penultimate episode is pretty much one long dream sequence.  It’s an intriguing piece of filmmaking, but it does nothing to move the story toward closure.  Our other gripe is that one episode contains a baptism scene that’s lifted from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. (Spoiler: Coppola did it better.)

The first season packs the most punch, as it’s the one where Danny most takes center stage. Ben Mendelsohn seems to channel Shakespeare’s Richard III, and he infuses Danny with edgy charisma.  The second and third seasons have their moments though, as when Ozzy walks into a store after a fight that has left him bloody and bruised  and casually asks the shocked clerk if the frozen soft drink he’s about to buy will turn his tongue blue.

Bloodline is a crime show with elements of soap opera and a dash of Greek tragedy.  During the course of the series, a prominent family is brought low by their own deceptions.  After watching the last episode, we switched to networks news and caught a story about Donald Trump, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner …

 

A Small, Beautiful Wall That Mexico’s Not Going To Pay For

4 Sep

We1 haven’t posted anything in for, like, ever. The reason for the hiatus is that we got involved in a household project. It’s axiomatic that any household project you tackle will take longer and cost more than you thought, and this one is no exception.

It started when we noticed that our crawlspace had no vapor barrier, which they’re apparently supposed to have. No one wants to think about crawlspaces and many people probably don’t even know what they are. (We sure didn’t.) They’re places in the basement for plumbing, wiring, ductwork and so forth.) If a house has one, it’s usually dark, dank, cramped, and perhaps a home for spiders, mice, and mold. In short, not a fun place – the stuff of horror flicks. A patio hot tub is much more fun to think about.

Anyhoo, “crawlspace encapsulation” is a term that’s all the rage right now, and it apparently means making it so the space is less dark and dank (it’ll still be cramped) and less likely to be a home for spiders, mice and mold. We got the usual estimates. One contractor noted that whoever built the house had made the area under the porch part of the crawlspace instead of walling it off like he should have done. He said, “It’ll be cheaper if you wall it off yourself using concrete block or plywood.” He’d said the magic word: CHEAPER!

Under the porch of a house

Before

Never mind that we can scarcely hammer a nail without bending it, we were going to build a wall, and by gum, were going to do it ourselves! We’d be like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, hauling a ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle (only instead of the Amazon jungle, we’d be in a dark, dank, cramped space in the basement and there was no ship – other than that, same difference.)

We soon learned that thinking about something is often a lot cooler that actually doing it. It one’s mind’s eye, everything is pristine, nails don’t bend, everything is plumb, and things go according to plan.

The crawlspace entrance is 3/4 up the basement wall; “convienent” had apparently not been a word in the builder’s lexicon. The interior has lots of fine gravel, and we had to dig a bunch of it out where the wall was going to be. Where there wasn’t gravel there was hard clay and that had to be dug out as well.

At last we could start actually building. There was a lot of grunting and groaning as we exercised muscles that we hadn’t used in years. At one point, we were convinced that we’d torn a rotator cuff (we hadn’t – we’re just hypochondriacs.) We cursed as we drilled holes in the concrete block that seemed to take forever. We measured twice and cut once and still screwed up the length of the cut. We used that expanding foam stuff to fill in cracks, made by those wonderful folks that brought you napalm.  (If you get it on your hands, the only way to get it off is for it to wear off, so don’t ignore the instructions like we did – wear rubber gloves!)

At last, we finished the wall. To us, it’s an engineering marvel comparable to the Great Wall of China. The crawlspace encapsulation guys are coming next week. We can’t wait to see the look of awe on their faces as they gaze upon the wonder that is Our Wall.

finished wall

After

  1. The author insists on referring to himself in the third person – a pretentious affectation to be sure.

God Bless You, Fred Ianelli, Wherever You Are!

21 Dec

We’ve wanted to say “God Bless you, Fred Ianelli, wherever you are” for a while now but we didn’t for several reasons:

  1. Fred Ianelli is the name of an actual guy that we knew, though not well.  We weren’t (and still aren’t) sure about how he’d feel about our use of his real name (assuming he ever even sees this.)
  2. We thought that the gang down at Atheism, Inc. might boycott us if we invoked the Diety

We’ve long known from personal experience that sometimes a comment made during a brief encounter can make a big difference, as Fred’s did for us on a Friday many autumns ago.

We majored in Communications at a university in the Midwest. (Upon graduation, we were all set for a career in broadcasting in the 1950s – unfortunately, it was the late 1970s.)  Back in those halcyon days, we were taking this 400 level TV  directing class.  The first assignment seemed simple enough: theme music, fade in on a title card, cut to the talent (the person in front of the camera is called the talent, even if that person has none), let the talent speak about a subject, cut to an object or diagram, back to the talent,  more talking, fade out. The whole thing is over in 3 minutes.

tv_camera

All set for the 1950s

Each student was to direct a talent and also be the talent for another student’s segment. The chap slated to be our talent proved a bit elusive – he didn’t seem to want to meet with us, and the most we could get out of him was that he’d be talking about stereo stuff – woofers, tweeters and the like.  He said he’d refer to a diagram to augment his short spiel. The diagram worried us – graphics must be bold to be visible on camera. We offered to take his concept and produce the graphic ourselves, but he assured us that he would take care of its creation.

On the day of the class our worst fears were realized – far from creating a graphic that would show up well on camera, our talent had created an ill-defined diagram that we knew instantly would display as washed-out white with faint dark lines. It looked like a kid in grade school had made it. Oh, well, nothing to do but tape the segment. Needless to say, the result was underwhelming. In his critique, the instructor stressed that the graphic was poor and needed to be visible to the viewing audience. We got a C.

On the trek back to our dorm, we happened to encounter the eponymous Fred, with whom we exchanged a few words of greeting.  We mentioned our less than stellar experience in  the TV directing class, which he had also taken in the past. As we finished our tale of woe, we saw that Fred seemed really amused.  He clapped us on the arm and said “Don’t let them mindf**k you, my man! And that’s what they’re going to try to do.  Don’t let ’em.”  The “they” he was referring to was the entire Communications department at our august institution.  We realized that he was right, and it cheered us up immensely.  We’d taken the whole thing way too seriously. By the time we got back home, we were smiling.

 

Dear Philip K. Dick

13 Nov

Dear Philip K. Dick,

We know you died in 1982, but we’re contacting you in the hope that the metaphysical state you’re in now might be like ‘half-life’ in your novel  Ubik – a condition that allows the departed and the living to communicate, at least for a time. Here’s hoping.

Many of your plots deal with the question of reality. We recall your short story, Faith of Our Fathers, for example, and your novels The Man in the High Castle and “Flow My Tears”, the Policeman Said. We could name others, but you know your oeuvre a lot better than we do.  We’re living in the US in the year 2016 (or at least, we were), and we think we’ve ended up in an alternate reality, cut off from our fellow citizens back in ‘normal’ (for want of a better word) reality.

multiverse

Is it just us, or are you in a parallel universe, too?

The parallel universe into which we’ve  just  been thrust features an orange-hued alien who apparently has the power to bend people’s perceptions on a mass scale. This entity has just been elected president of the U.S. We know something in our neck of the multiverse is out of whack, Philip, because things just don’t add up. For example, during the campaign:

  • Said candidate (the aforementioned orange-hued one) came into the race with a complete lack of qualifications, never having held office, even at the local level.
  • He insulted women and minorities, and even encouraged violence at his political rallies.
  • Candidate exhibited insensitivity to the grieving parents of a slain soldier.
  • He bragged about his business success, yet went bankrupt several times, with a string of business failures in his past.
  • He ran a dubious operation that he called a University. Defunct university currently under litigation.
  • In videotaped footage, he bragged about his ability to grope women’s genitalia and get away with it.
  • He paid no taxes for twenty years. Further, he failed to release his tax returns as many who sought the Presidency have done.
  • Candidate said he was blameless for not paying taxes, suggesting that his opponent was responsible for the tax code. In general,  he exhibited an inability to take responsibility for anything – it was always someone else’s fault.
  • He had a server that communicated inexplicably with a bank in Russia.

The thing is, Philip, any one of these things would likely have torpedoed the candidacy of anyone else, but what the hell, he won! He WON! That’s why we think we’re in Bizarro world with an alien who has the power of mass hypnosis, because we can’t believe the American people could elect such a total loser. We desperately want to get back to the universe we came from, where facts mattered at least a little and things made at least some sense.  At this time, we’re not sure if we’re the only ones trapped in La La Land, or whether our fellow citizens are in the same boat.  If you’re in half-life, we’d appreciate any observations you may have.

Regards,

Harry Calnan

Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold” (and the Mud Guy)

22 Aug

Werner Herzog may well be our greatest living filmmaker, with a body of work spanning decades and as diverse as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (a film about a crazed conquistador), and his current documentary, Lo and Behold, an often disturbing exploration of the Internet.

As the film begins, we learn that the letters L and O were the first two characters ever transmitted between two networked computers (the sender was attempting to log in), whereupon the recipient machine crashed.  In those early times, the entire community of internet users could be (and was) listed in a single directory.  From such humble beginnings came the networked world we know and love (and hate) today.

Herzog’s film is wide ranging, exploring such topics as networked driverless cars that learn from the mistakes of their peers, the potential for total internet disruption by solar flares, a family cruelly traumatized by internet trolls, young people addicted to internet games, the problems stemming from an inability to track individuals on the internet, the problems posed by too much internet trackability, and internet communications on Mars (Herzog expresses an interest in going even if it means remaining there.) We especially liked Herzog’s interview with Kevin Mitnick, a famous hacker who paid dearly for his hacking with a prison term.

Over the years, Herzog has pretty much figured out that people find his Teutonic eccentricities a mite zany and he now seems to go out of his way to include Herzogian touches in his films.  For example, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams” ends with a bewildering epilogue about albino crocodiles living near the cave in water flushed from a nearby nuclear reactor.  While Herzog does not go that extreme in Lo and Behold, his voice over declares the corridors of a university building ‘repulsive’ and he throws in a bit about Buddhist monks tweeting on iPhones in a future Chicago where the populace has apparently emigrated to Mars.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but we like it ‘cause it gives a chance to nudge our partner as if to say “Oh, that Werner.  What a zany guy!”

Eccentricities aside, “Lo and Behold” gives the viewer a lot to think about and it’s well worth your time.  The one thing we found odd about the documentary is that Herzog manages to explore the topic of the Internet and its implications without ever mentioning two Internet mainstays: pornography and cat pictures.

Lo_and_Behold

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Our eldest daughter is a photographer  who often creates assemblages from disparate photographic elements. She recently asked us to be the subject of one of her photo shoots.  We don’t like to be photographed (it steals the soul), so we didn’t take to the idea until she told us that we were to be covered in mud.  Being caked with mud would provide a certain anonymity. Too, there was something Werner Herzogian (see above) about being covered in mud that appealed to us.  We agreed to  be photographed.

On a weekend, we conducted the shoot.  Clad in shorts and our own hirsute epidermis, she and her sister used sponge brushes to apply the mud. After about 10 minutes of application, she pronounced the result satisfactory.  We assumed that we’d then shoot among some trees, but she posed us in front of the white garage door.  We’d be electronically separated from the background in the final assemblage.

As we awaited her instructions, we decided that channeling our inner Incredible Hulk would be just the thing.  We began to psyche ourselves up, putting what we fervently hoped was a Hulk-like grimace on our face.  With the camera in position, our daughter gave us an instruction that was breathtaking in its simplicity. “Dad, I want you to look at the tail light on that car”, she said, indicating her sister’s vehicle about 10 feet away. That was all we needed. We forgot all about the Incredible Hulk, and abandoned the idea about psyching ourselves up. The world now consisted of that tail light, and if we were supposed to look at it, then by gum, we were going to look the hell out of it. As the shutter clicked, she provided a few more instructions, but stressed that we should continue looking at the tail light.

At length the session was over and our daughter had the images she wanted.  She explained that the mud guy was to take up only a section of the final piece. We went inside to wash off the mud, reflecting on how powerful a simple instruction to a non-actor can be. It occurred to us that when directing people (especially space cadets like us),  a simple instruction often suffices.

We caught a glimpse of the mud guy in the bathroom mirror. Some of the mud had dried, while some of it was still wet.  The two-toned effect was awesome. We thought about reporting for work the next day still caked in the mud.  Since that was impractical, we washed it off.

Jaws and Scams

9 Jul

The perception that the English have terrible teeth is supposedly a myth, but we’re not so sure. Our ancestry is a mélange of Irish, Scottish, and English folks, and we’ve got the crooked teeth to prove it.  Less than a week after we finally had our wisdom teeth out (our oral surgeon laid a big guilt trip on us for our not attending to this in our teens), we busted our jaw chomping down on a Bahn Mi sandwich. (It’s a French- Vietnamese fusion of pan-fried marinated tofu with thinly sliced carrot and chipotle mayo on a baguette – our taste buds are dancing just thinking about it.) Our jaw has been wired shut for the past three weeks. Some setbacks have their advantages though – it’s done wonders for our figure (we’re sipping meals through a straw), and now we can do convincing impressions of Stephen Hawking.  On the down side, it’s a bloody nuisance. This might be karmic payback for something rotten we did in a previous life.

busted_jaw

Teeth

If you’ve not had your wisdom teeth removed and you’re in your teens, now’s the time to get it done (ideally, you have dental insurance.)  It’ll save you a guilt trip from your oral surgeon later.  If you’re past your teens, you might want to look into it – it becomes more of a big deal the older you get.  If the teeth are really impacted, you may wish to be careful and eat softer foods for the first month or so after you visit the oral surgeon – baguette isn’t exactly hard, but it’s rather chewy, so go easy on the chewy stuff.

Several days after this misfortune, we got a call from a guy (telephone number 1-156-566-5556) who said he was working with Microsoft and they’d discovered a lot of Internet traffic from emanating from our PC (or something to that effect – the upshot was that our PC had been taken over by others and he, concerned guy that he was, would tell us how to fix it.)  He sounded like he was in a room with lots of other good Samaritans also making phone calls. It was clearly a scam, but we decided to play along.  He told us to open a command prompt and run netstat -an.  This command essentially shows you information about network connections. The guy offered this as proof that the computer had been taken over by invading marauders (it proved nothing of the kind.) He then asked us to run other commands which also did nothing to show that the computer had been compromised but were apparently intended to convince us that he knew what he was talking about.  (He didn’t) We pretended to follow his instructions, waiting for him to get to the heart of the scam. By and by, he did, asking us to open a browser and visit some Web site that would cure our PC’s ills.  At this point we got bored and starting making things up when he asked us to describe what was on the web page.  We hadn’t even bothered to open the browser.  Sensing he was getting nowhere, he said he’d call back when we were actually in front of a computer.  We thought that’d be the end of it, but he actually called back several days later. This time, we weren’t amused and told him not to call back.  (He hasn’t.)

This post has been brought to you as a public service announcement from the British Dental Association and the Society for the Prevention of Guys Running Telephone Computer Scams  – exercise caution after oral surgery, and don’t believe some guy who calls you saying he’s going to ‘fix’ your computer.

Lemming of the BDA

Our man Lemming from the British Dental Association.