Thursday, May 25, 2017

This Week’s Links

I haven’t done a link-fest in quite a while. But I’ve found a few things this week that are worthy of it.

One. James Lileks deconstructs a knee-jerk reaction.

In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, I’m sure we’re going to see lots of letters like the one he discusses (it’s after the short Dish Network rant). Biggest takeaway:

[From the letter] Rid your household, your neighborhood, your workplace and your place of worship of the poisonous and corrupt forces of racism and sexism and discrimination and persecution of the poor.

[From Lileks] My household, neighborhood, workplace, or place of worship may be utterly corrupted by racism and sexism, but here’s the thing: no one from any of these places has blown themselves up at a musical event popular with young girls. If you’re saying that the jihadi who killed the children was lashing out at the injustices he had observed or experienced in British culture - that is obscene. That is poisonous.

Two. Political candidate allegedly body-slams reporter, breaks glasses, gets cited for misdemeanor battery. 

A reporter from The Guardian asks a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives a question about Republican efforts to reform healthcare. A scuffle ensues. The second-biggest takeaway:

Citizens have the power to bear witness, to document, to question—and to elect—our nation’s top legislators. It’s unclear how last night’s altercation, or the recording of it, will affect the Montana election, if at all. Many voters already submitted ballots in early voting, before the alleged assault occurred. Still, the outcome of the race will offer a glimpse of how Americans perceive the status of their own rights in democratic society. The rest of us will be watching.

The biggest takeaway, taken from a scene from 1988’s criminally underrated film “Switching Channels” (no YouTube clip of this exists, except in Russian; go figure the irony on that one):

Scene setup: Roy Ridnitz, candidate for Governor of Illinois and current state’s attorney, is literally seconds away from ordering state troopers to kill two television reporters suspected of harboring a fugitive (as they stand in front of a copier* where, indeed, they have stuffed said fugitive), while scads of the reporters’ cohorts are watching, cameras rolling and penny pencils poised.

Ridnitz: One . . .

Campaign Aide: Boss, it won’t look good if you waste two news guys on television.
Ridnitz: Half of this nation will stand up and cheer. [Continues countdown] Two . . .

Aide: [Frantic whisper] NO!

I’m not condoning the alleged assault.  I wouldn’t vote for the guy in any case. What I am saying is that despite the alleged assault, I think this guy’s chances of getting elected are pretty good, given the current political climate.

Also, Switching Channels is definitely worth watching. It’s pretty hostile to politicians of every stripe and the news media. And it’s got a killer jazz tune over the ending credits.

*If you don’t believe a copier is large enough to conceal a human being in its innards, consider the following: 1. This is 1988 we’re talking about, and 2) The human is Henry Gibson.

Three.  A scientist uses science to prove ESP is real. We have to assume either 1. ESP is real, or 2. Accepted methodology and data analysis in science is pretty broken.

Daryl Bem, a researcher at Cornell University, spent ten years conducting experiments into ESP, and recently published that research. The biggest takeaway:

But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions—that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field—and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk.

They do have a video of Bem performing one of his experiments:

We need Dean Yeager to step in.

Four. Stories that consist almost entirely of tweets? No. Please no.

I know this is an entertainment piece. I don’t know how I’d report this myself. But in an industry that brought us short stories to avoid the jumps and corrections published above the tide schedules on Page 43, this jumping from page to page to read the story and then see the tweets should Stop. Right. Now. The only reason – the only reason – I can think of that a news organization would condone this kind of jumpiness would be to get around having to ask people to use their tweets. “We didn’t use your tweet, we just linked to it!” kind of thing.

The Tale of Hubris, Part II

This particular inn’s ale is not the best I’ve had, but I ordered another. Alcohol and the stench of stale beer reminded me of home – of nan, if I’m honest. And it never paid to be too sober in the days leading up to an adventure, when you never knew when the next inn or ale or dry bit of ground to sleep on was going to come. Look at the almanac and then at any adventure’s itinerary, and you’re guaranteed to see rain outside the season of rain, deluge in rain’s season, and, more often than not, rains of fish or poisonous frogs or anything else unpleasant you could imagine. Because the frogs you couldn’t eat and the fish, after a week, you’d rather starve than choke another one of them down.

So to sit in this dark corner of this dark inn, sipping ale, quite pleasant.

The company, however, had me down.

Thin of mein, a bit unshaven, gloomy in the cloak and hood that buried his eyes in darkness.

“They’re over there,” he said gloomily, twitching a finger toward the bright fire. There, surrounded by the inn’s typical denizens right down to the fat forgetful innkeeper, his party. A gaggle of about half a dozen stubby, stout fellows quaffing ale and singing loud, cheerful songs.

“Quiet as a fart in church.”


He grunted and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“Don’t even have to tell you what’s waiting outside, do I?”

No. You always knew.

Shapes and shadows. Minions and scarecrows whose heads twisted round their bodies to watch as you went past. The louder the songs, the more indulgent the quaffing, the deadlier the enemies espying through the windows were.

There was a shout and bang and a scrabbling from the table near the fire, while five or so of the stout fellows accompanied by a few of the seedier creatures poked under tables and lifted up the corners of drapes, apparently looking for something.

My companion winced. “That’ll help. That ALWAYS helps. Every drift and shadow within twenty miles of here knows it’s here now. Well – “ he sprung silently from his seat, flashing for a moment a sword held in a crusted leather scabbard at his belt “I’m for it now. Best go set up the decoys and sell the horses. We’ll be hoofing it within three hours. Watch me.” He left and I sat there, uneasily sipping the last of my ale as the missing fellow at the table by the bright fire reappeared, making a show of buttoning his fly as if he’d merely stepped out to relieve himself.

Daft, they get. Captured and skinned within two days, I’ll warrant.

Sometimes, I admit, they surprise you. The rare one or two have veins of inner strength even the most rugged would wonder at, given how soft and unspoiled they look. They don’t go out seeking adventure, but Adventure – with the capital A – finds them, binds them, and uses them to the rare good end. I hoped my friend had one of those in the group of fellows now stupidly stumbling out of the bar and up the stairs, making more noise shushing each other than the minions made stumbling out of the inn into the rain to alert their masters.

Adventures like that last longer, mind you. But a success under the belt, even once, makes up for all the bloody, truncated ends one usually gets in the trade. Although the shapes and shadows and minions are a lot harder to live with, after that. One success and any camaraderie you managed to build over the years is gone like a belch in the wind.

A wailing form outside sent a shiver down my spine and froze the countenances of everyone in the bar. “Oh, they’ve had it,” I thought. I gulped down the rest of my ale then stole out to the stables where I’d arranged to sleep for the night, before I headed two towns over to find my own unlikely conglomerate of embarrassing charges.

The Tale of Hubris, Part I

I’d have been better off had nan not been so bookish.

But because she ran offt and married the wandering book-seller and not settled in the village as the wife of the cobbler’s son, the life I lead is . . . well, nan calls it interesting.
I call it a bother.

But it’s partly my fault. I’m the one who sat by the fire and listened to nan tell her stories while the more sensible members of the household slept or sneaked out once the moon set or earlier if the wind blew.

Nan’s hearing was never all that good, and she had one eye clouded and milky, so when the wind blew or the light dimmed, she had trouble counting those around the fire. Still she knew. She knew when they slept or when they sneaked off, and always had a sharp word for them come morning.

Yet I’m the one she named Hubris. Explain me that.

Oh, but the tales. The tales nan told. Stories of adventurers seeking their fortunes, seeking lost loves, seeking revenge. Revenge! Those were my favorites. Because once the adventurers found their fortunes, well, they had to cart it all home, didn’t they? The tellers of tales never told the returns, filled with highwaymen and lavish nights at the inns and adventurers and heroes slinking back home in rags without a penny in their pockets. But those who sought revenge! White-hot at the moment they found it, glorious and streaked with blood and making thrones of the skulls of their enemies! Those are the tales that kept me ‘round the fire and often caused the nightmares that made me roll into the fire once I did finally fall asleep.

And nan always cackled as she beat and kicked out the flames.

“Stupid boy,” she’d say. “Last one I’d take on an adventure. You’d be the one to fall down the hole where the goblins live, or get lost in the enchanted forest or be imprisoned by the Dark Lord. And you’d deserve it.”

But when she learned a new tale – and you could tell when it was fresh, for the milky eye would glow and you swear you could see the tiniest of black pupils at its center as it roamed independent of the other – she made sure mother shaved my head and that I’d had a good ducking in the river before she told it, so afterwards when I rolled into the fire gripped in a nightmare my clothes would only smoulder a bit and I’d only lose my eyebrows. Eyebrows grew back quickly, nan said.

And she’d put on her pointy boots.

Father – as in many of the tales nan told – was dead. Died right after I was born. Dead of disappointment, nan said, for up until then he’d had only daughters and wot not to do with a son. And Mum worked hard washing laundry and taking in sewing and worked us hard in the garden and in the woods looking for berries and stealing firewood, often complaining of the hard life she led despite being the offspring of a bookish woman such as nan.

“Books have done me a lot of good,” nan said.

“Saved you from a life of prosperity as the wife of a cobbler, no doubt,” Mum retorted. Indeed, when knew nan’s former beau had made his fortune and moved to the city and had stables of cobblers making shoes for the lards and ladies there. Her own husband, the book-seller, died in a binding accident when Mum was only six days old.

“I’m happier with books,” nan said. “Who needs money?”

“Money buys food!” Mum screamed.

“I’d like to see you wipe your bottom with money!”

That’s usually when they began throwing things at each other. Not that we had much to throw. But Mum and nan collected rocks and rotten turnips for such occasions, and hid them round the house.

This is when I usually left.

Usually. Because if I showed so much as a burnt eyebrow outside the hut, my sisters, they got unpleasant with me.

‘Baby! Oh Baby!”

Merdy typically started it, as Merdy was the one who rarely ventured past the garden gate. Said she was tending the potatoes . Probably eating half the crop, raw, fat as she is. She’d been the youngest until I came along and resented my accident of birth.

“Nan says it’s always the youngest in the family who finds her fortune, reaps her rewards, finds her prince! You came and mucked it up. Though you’d probably like a prince, wouldn’t you, Baby?”

That was her standard speech. And as she was too fat to leave her spot in the garden, that’s typically as far as she got into it before I was out of the house and running down the lane, singing one of nan’s filthy songs to drown out Molly’s voice.

I liked her the best of my sisters. Her weapons were words, and nan’s tales always said that words could do no harm unless the victim were a complete and utter clod and dullard who bothered to think about what was being said by an enemy who used only words as weapons.

Some days, though, I’d run too far and –

Hagg always tripped me near the briar patch, near a fresh pile of horse dung, or near the poison ivy. One could say I could avoid such obstacles, but Peg cultivated both briar and ivy, and collected fresh dung by the bucketsful and always varied the location of her traps.
I had bruises on my shins from the ash branches she used to foul my legs.

“Stupid Baby, you smell like a horse!” And she’d croak out a laugh.

I never saw Hagg. Only heard the voice, like a frog tired of eating flies.

I’d have hugged her out of revenge, (Oh, revenge!) but it never paid to linger where Hagg set her snares.

Where Hagg was mostly passive in her aggression, Jaundice was overt, always had her hair in a severe bun and her fists balled up, and almost always waited until I’d nearly picked all the briars out of my face or brushed off the worst of the manure before she began beating my kidneys. And where nan’s beatings were generally enjoyable because the dogs joined and soon enough were tugging on opposite sides of nan’s shawl and she was batting at them and I could dart away, laughing, Jaundice aimed to end the fight quickly with blows that would fell a troll.

She never spoke at all – frighteningly quiet, our Jaundice. I never knew why she hated me so, though I suspect she didn’t really need a reason.

But even if she landed a few blows, I knew once I was past her and my wind was back, I’d be free. Free to run and spy and laugh and throw rocks over fences until I was hungry and I could go home unmolested.

Because nan always said the evil stepsisters – even if they were flesh and blood – should always be happy to see the innocent return, so they’d have chances to be evil all over again.

“Treat him poorly enough, he’ll flee. And then he’ll come back, bringing a fortune back to us all on his return, one of these days,” nan said. And the rest of the family believed her. Because that’s how it always was, in the tales she told.

So one day, when I was about thirteen or fifteen – both good ages to run away from the unpleasantness to seek one’s fortune, nan always reminded me – I did run off.

And my life got a lot worse.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Voice of A Generation

I read Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” back in the mid-1990s, when I was a disaffected college student studying journalism and English and wishing I was done with school.

I was also listening to a new band, introduced to me in the wilds of Idaho by a brother who was living the life of a sophisticate in Phoenix: They Might Be Giants.

I remember being told Coupland was the voice of my Generation X. And I recall, while reading his book, that maybe he was. Or maybe he wasn’t. I was younger and more callow than his protagonists, anxious to get out into the world and make my mark in the exciting field of newspaper journalism.

I remember listening to TMBG – their album Flood was one of the first albums I ever bought with my own money – and thinking, hey, these are funny songs. Or at least I should call them funny so I can be as sophisticated as my brother in Phoenix.

Nowadays, I can claim to have read Coupland’s “Generation X”.

Nowadays, I still listen to TMBG.

Slate writer Laura Miller, in her review of Coupland’s “Bit Rot,” laments the fall of Coupland as the Voice of A Generation.

I think she ought to pull her old TMBG albums out of mothballs and consider she’s overlooked the real VOAG all along.
What qualifies them as VOAG in my book? Well, this song for a start:

The song captures the pre-Internet narcissism that’s now bubbled over into the full-blown Me-Fest that represents the Internet and, to many extremes, my generation and those that have come after it. That I have a platform at all to flap my gums about whether TMBG is the true voice of Generation X is evidence that the Internet Me-Fest is the defining element of my generation.  (And remember, it’s not important that anyone actually listen to what I have to say, but that I say it in a public forum. Because truly I should be allowed to blurt there merest idea if by random whim one occurs to me. And here it is. And there it goes. Because in a day or two, Generation X-like, I’ll have forgotten what I’ve written here unless I encounter it again in a year or two when Facebook reminds me I’ve written it.

Meanwhile, I’m in my veal-fattening pen but absent the bleeding hippie boss. (My current boss is also Generation X; I have failed to climb the corporate ladder but as my corporate ambitions can be summed up in one Dilbert comic, I’m not all that bothered by it.)

But one song, I can hear you asking – does one song define VOAG? Well, they let one book define it for Douglas Coupland, but I have more evidence.

I could point to Flood, TMBG’s most popular album, but then I’d have to discuss my hatred for “Your Racist Friend,” which while politically motivated, is absolutely unsingable unless you’re really in the mood for a whiny, whiny, WHINY song. My hatred of the song probably implies to many of my generation, and those that follow, that I am the racist friend being sung about. That assumption is false. Be honest with yourself, the song is terrible.

So I’ll move on to their better album, Apollo 18.

More specifically, this song:

In a spare 74 seconds, TMBG captures the feeling of gleeful angst Generation X is known for. Note it doesn’t describe what the angst feels like, nor its point of origin. It’s angst for angst’s sake, which is the hallmark of this generation. That overseas guy thinks he can describe it, but overseas is how it really feels.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

No one, the old saw goes, reports on the planes that land without mishap.

But the crashes. Oh, the crashes.

And we are plane crash-watchers.

It’s easy to blame social media, particularly when it offers us, almost weekly, live feeds and play-by-plays of others in disintegration. But social media is just the latest manifestation of something that’s been going on likely since cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and cave paintings.

And I can’t click my tongue at the crash-watchers, because Iread the feeds and play-by-plays. I probably would not watch a video. Probably. Because video puts it too close. Snide texts, posts, or tweets where the event is interpreted rather than presented raw, removes us enough from caring about either side to help the drama enter the realm of entertainment.

And watching one? A Tony Bennett song, to be sure. More evidence we’ve been doing this long before social media.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence out there of healthy relationships. Or at least relationships where spouses are talking through difficulties and working things out. And even getting caught being happy together. There are songs that go along with those too.