Monday, September 26, 2011

They Who Would Rather Sweat in Squalor

During an unpleasant few moments of an otherwise pleasant visit to Powell's Books, I suffered through almost the whole of the text printed on the jacket of Thomas Friedman's latest book about America's decline. I am not surprised to be confirmed in my suspicion that the book's central argument is weak -- or rather, weak in a familiar way. Adam Gopnik observes that Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum

... present every problem as one confronted by a uniform "we." ... But that's not the case here. Friedman and Mandelbaum want their countrymen to face the future without first facing the facts about their countrymen: this is the country that a lot of "us" want. ... The reason we don't have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it's that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. ... Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don't have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible. ... [T]his is the result of active choice, not passive indifference.
We have the public policies of the representatives we collectively elect, and the anti-government, anti-tax ranters are alarmingly numerous and readily conspicuous -- unless, it seems, you're Tom Friedman or Barack Obama, unaccountably stuck in the precious idea that these people don't exist, or if they exist, don't operate any of the levers of power, or if they exist and operate the levers, don't really aspire to what they explicitly aspire. Or something.

Memo to dolts: look around, and check the mirror. The hidebound monsters who would prefer to sweat in squalor actually exist, they hold power, they want to hold more power, and they mean what they say.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Four the Ages Could Do Without

In keeping with my tendency to value comity, harmony, and consensus, I post four images from the Overrated White Guys tumblr -- posted in the presumably sensible order in which this web interface placed them when I selected all and clicked the button.

 It should go without saying that I chose these four worthies for no reason whatever, certainly not because I agree that these accomplished, widely respected white guys are overrated. Yes. That probably should go without saying, as with most everything else that has ever appeared on this precious, precious -- overrated? -- blog.

Clark Gable sensibly chose the same speaking voice and emotional register for all roles.

Call him 'Al' or whatever -- please don't play his songs.

Oh William Blake, it's not you, it's us. We only acknowledge six senses and -- well, I can't put this nicely -- your nightmares are far more interesting to you than to everyone else. See also Jim Morrison, also honored at OWG.

Jack Kerouac, please get off the road. You're not making any sense, and when you are, it's totally not worth it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

REM - End the End

It seems I've entered that delicate stage of feckless dotage in which I get misty-eyed over bands that are no more. No, they're not dead as with, say, Fleetwood Mac, but REM is no longer:

"To our fans and friends: As REM, and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. "We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished," the statement continued. "To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."
You're welcome, REM, and thank you. I write this within physical reach of seventeen REM CDs, almost all of them worth cherishing, the others merely well above average. Modern-day readers will understand CDs as sort of a primitive version of blu ray disks made especially for music -- no video signal at all -- and meant to carry upwards of 80 minutes of music. People paid money for them in stores, frequently without having heard a note of the music encoded on them beforehand, then trudged back to their hand-built log cabins to build a fire against the forbidding night's cold and for cooking cornbread or biscuits or thinnest gruel, depending on the quality of the recent harvest. The cows would need to be milked at dawn, the potatoes dug thereafter. Then school would start.

REM made excellent music for a long time. I am not yet ready to use the past tense there, but the fact is what the fact is. Songs like the following turn out to be perfect for negotiating the hardships and confusions of life in the olden days -- and for the days to come, I should think.

"Driver 8"

"Monty Got a Raw Deal"

"Begin the Begin"


(via Obscene Desserts)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix Can't Say Goodbye

My continuing coverage of Netflix continues, breathlessly as ever, with the news that its forward-thinking CEO

... is now going to separate Netflix's DVD and streaming businesses into two different brands. The online half will be called Netflix, while the DVD-by-mail portion will be called Qwikster. The two services won't share anything—your queues, ratings, and even your billing information will remain distinct on each site. In a sign of how hastily Netflix arrived at this idea, it seems to have forgotten to search for @qwikster on Twitter. That handle is owned by a person whose avatar is an image of Elmo smoking a joint.
In Netflix/Qwikster's defense, I am pretty sure that the Elmo-smoking-a-joint avatar is a default assigned by Twitter to accounts that don't select a custom avatar. I could be wrong, but since this would be more interesting if true, it is true and I am not wrong. That's how the world works.

Oh, but I am wrong -- wrong to say anything in defense of Netflix/Qwikster, that is, and I will start here: I am not going to type that fucking stupid name ever again. In English, the letter w does not follow the letter q in any actual, correctly spelled word. That name is a hideous abomination, and given that it now applies to the side of the service I can more or less tolerate, I can expect it to prey on my sensibilities every time it is splayed across an envelope in my mailbox.

Netflix is certainly putting a lot of faith in its video streaming business, and why not when fully nine eight six of its top 100 rentals are available via streaming? A generous observer might round that up to 10%! I will not. I will observe instead that it continues to underscore the paltry quality of Netflix's streaming content even among its current subscribers. Now that they're breaking the service in half, it's not clear where our ratings and rental history will go, and as a result, the suggestion algorithm, which is often helpful in pointing to lesser-known titles, will no longer function as it did before.

So, to summarize: Netflix is joining the poor quality of its video streaming offerings to a less useful web site experience and more complex billing. More and more, Netflix's business model is reminding me of President Obama's approach to politics: someone in charge has decided the endeavor is no longer worth the trouble, so why even try to do the right thing, or even the popular thing?

Really, Netflix and president chickenshit: it's OK to say goodbye and quietly exit the scene. Be brave. Just take your severance package and pretend it never happened. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly you are forgotten.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Whole Thing

I just signed the Whole Constitution Pledge, which almost completely avoids the fetish for "founding fathers" that these kinds of things tend to indulge:

Through the Constitution, “We the People” created the most enduring government charter in world history.
Building on the achievements of the Founding generation, successive generations of Americans have created a “more perfect union” through constitutional Amendments. These Amendments have improved our Constitution by ending slavery, enshrining guarantees of equality and citizenship, expanding the right to vote, and ensuring that the national government has the power and resources necessary to protect the nation, address national challenges and secure civil rights.
Some have advocated repeal of Amendments, including the 14th Amendment, the 16th Amendment, and the 17th Amendment, that make our Constitution better and this country great. Some have even failed to heed the lessons of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and have advocated a return to ideas of secession and nullification.
I believe that our Constitution has been improved by the Amendments adopted over the last 220 years. I pledge to support the whole Constitution.
This is a longer way of saying: the rule of law should prevail in the USA. That said, I am not convinced that advocating for the repeal of particular amendments or provisions is a problem since the Constitution provides for the means of its own emendation, and this cannot proceed without advocacy, which is in turn expressly protected under the first amendment.

While the amendments and provisions stand as they are, however, public officials of all parties must be bound to a good-faith understanding and precedent-informed reading of their terms. I'm looking right at you when I note that, President Chickenshit, no less than I am looking right at your war criminal predecessors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ignorance Born

I say the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is far too kind in this statement:

The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement ... The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend that girls receive HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That's because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it's important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.
The AAP didn't consult me when attenuating the kindness of the statement, starting with the demure failure to name the liar in question. Maybe that's fair enough, since for my purposes, declaring Michelle Bachmann an unhinged, god-drunk sociopath would still have been too kind. In a just world, she would personally incur all the suffering that her part in propagating this lie creates, but of course, we don't live in one of those worlds. We live in the sort of world in which Michelle Bachmann can stand on a very public stage on national television and not only be taken quasi-seriously as an American presidential candidate, but issue outright lies that enable the spread of preventable diseases that afflict and kill people.

Naturally, this being the sort of world I described above, Bachmann returned to national television the next morning to continue lying:
[O]n the Today show Tuesday morning, Bachmann went further, telling Matt Lauer, that a mother had approached her after the debate to recount the problems her daughter had after being vaccinated against HPV:
She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn't know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.
When Lauer pressed Bachmann on whether she would keep pushing on the issue, she answered that it has traction "with a lot of people and we'll see what people say."
If this seems like a crass appeal to popular ignorance ("very real concern," "people have to draw their own conclusions", "we'll see what people say"), it's only because it is exactly that. More than that, though, it is an attempt to foster popular ignorance on a specific topic, and an instance of the mechanism by which it expands: a lying crank with a budget cycles her way through the tee-vee channels repeating lies to gullible news celebrities, who at most can bring themselves to note the presence of a "controversy" while allowing the lies to pass on to mass audiences.

The danger of vaccines is as close to zero as the dangers of hypodermic needles can go. The danger of the diseases they prevent is immeasurably higher. Being brusque and direct with liars is better than enabling the suffering and death they work to spread. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

HB Neko Case

Yesterday was Neko Case's birthday, and this is "Twist the Knife," a song I am appalled to note I have yet to post on this precious, precious blog:


 "Twist the Knife" is among her most country-sounding songs, and also among the most representative of her vocal gifts. It is, in short, a treasure.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

True Blood - Seeing and Being

I should just go ahead and stop being surprised at myself for watching True Blood, the HBO vampire drama; after almost four seasons without missing an episode, it's evident that something in its mix of melodrama and titillation is working for me. We are no better than the choices we actually make, like it or not. Here's Alyssa Rosenberg discussing the penultimate episode of the current season:
Alcide’s efforts to stay with Debbie have been one of the most consistently-rendered storylines this season, each time bringing Alcide closer and closer to his limits. First, he’s joining a new pack, even if he’s not particularly comfortable with the people in it, as a way to try to help Debbie stay clean. He’s resisting Sookie, even though she might be an easier partner. And he’s stood by Marcus up to the point when it became clear that his packmaster wasn’t man enough to do his own fighting, much less enough wolf. But Debbie’s infidelity, her role in stealing someone else’s child, are too much, and True Blood made us feel the force of Alcide’s ritual without explaining it into the ground.
No, Alcide's efforts to stay with Debbie have been dull to watch and baffling to understand, notwithstanding the relentless consistency with which they've been presented. Or to put that ever more gently: the story so far has given viewers no basis for believing, relating to, or comprehending Alcide's attachment to Debbie, and thus their parting made for meager drama whose only reward might be -- let us pray fervently to the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- the departure of Debbie from the show. That's almost certainly too optimistic. As with so much that has crossed the True Blood screen this season, Alcide's renunciation of Debbie seems designed only to set up a(n arguably) more interesting plot development later on, which, again judging from the course of the season to date, may never actually materialize. Did I mention I watch this program with the same regularity I watch programs I truly like? I do. I don't know why.

Also: for all the histrionics about the "stolen child," in the cited comment and in the episode, it's worth noting that the werewolf man is "stealing" his own daughter by not having her at the expected place within a few hours of the expected time; and even if this qualifies as "stealing" -- and I do, by the way, readily concede that parents can and do kidnap their own children -- he has done a horrendous job of it by secreting her away to the home of Debbie, which is also the home of Alcide, or in other words, roughly the shittiest imaginable hiding place. He didn't even change her clothes or paint a fake mustache on her! His child abduction skills are clearly as weak as his fighting skills.

Alyssa continues:
Without being a prude, it’s increasingly tiresome to hear Lafayette call every woman in hearing a bitch, as in, “Marnie just puked that bitch out,” when Antonia frees herself of Marnie; this is beyond a linguistic tick that expresses Lafayette’s simultaneous identification with and distance from women. It’s just lazy.
It is lazy and tiresome, this overuse of "bitch" and similar slurs by the otherwise welcome character of Lafayette, who breathes life into all his scenes and fits exactly into a twitty melodrama. Not all anti-woman slurs are equal, however:
Ditto for Pam’s appalled reaction to the idea that Eric and Bill would “put your entire species at risk for a gash in a sundress,” which is both sexually nasty and not deeply perceptive ... Pam’s been through a lot this season, so I understand that she’s a little tetchy, but it’s sort of inconsistent to see her get all hair-triggery on Marnie and then pause to pluck a fallen comrade’s Cartier necklace off her soon-to-be-destroyed neck.
Ditto not. True, "a gash in a sundress" is rough, nasty talk, but it works here not only because Pam doesn't use it regularly but also because it so perfectly manifests Pam's gift for cutting through the show's ambient earnestness with sarcasm, detachment, wit, and world-weariness. Wouldn't vampires, of all para-people, be entitled to a little world-weariness after a few hundred years of observing the monotonous ebbs and flows of human life?

For some reason, I am sure I will be watching as season four closes on Sunday evening, whereupon I'll find out along with millions of others how assorted narrative threads are tied up or left ungathered: the fairy versus witch dynamic that began the season before vanishing completely; the excessive time spent watching Jason nurture, impregnate, and escape from panther-morph hillbillies; the burgeoning conflict between the wolfpack and the Alcide-Sam power duo; speaking of power duos, the Marnie-Antonia witch team that just can't possibly be finished given the matter-of-fact manner of their departures; and the messy vampire politics that are sure to get messier now that Erik is the real Erik, Bill is king, and The Authority -- whatever that's supposed to be -- is wary of both. None of which even gets to what the program has endeavored to place at the center of the season, the love triangle formed by Erik, Bill, and Sookie, which is suddenly tinged with more of Pam's resentment than ever and -- let us not forget -- darkened by the threat of a certain former vampire king who is alive but presently encased in silver and concrete at the edge of town.

It's all quite a tangle.

Bodily Return

Sigh. I am, despite all my wishes, back from a restful vacation on the Oregon Coast. Every photograph you see below was taken within a 25-mile stretch along the Oregon Coast during that single glorious week, and give but a paltry sense of what it was to behold.

Well, all but one were taken within that week and in that location -- the other belongs to the ages, to all good-hearted people, to all snakes, and to all places.  It is, in short, appropriate and fitting for everything, now and always.

To get a better look, click any of these images to embiggen it. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hail, Caesar

For purposes of this blog post, which contains many spoilers, I don't demand that everyone agree with my positive assessment of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the blockbuster film that charts the proximate causes behind the beginning stages of the rise of the planet of the apes, but some criticisms are more wrong than others, and a blogger has certain responsibilities to respond to the wrongness he/she finds on the internets.

To wit: the surprising agreement among the Pop Culture Happy Hour spokesmodels that the film's climactic ape riot made little sense. They share bafflement that (a) the apes were not engaging in a mass killing spree on their way out of town, but killed and maimed rather sparingly by the standards of cinematic animal rampages; and (b) that the apes were heading to, of all places, the Muir Woods National Monument located not far from San Francisco, the city where the apes had been detained either as zoo exhibits or medical dummies prior to their liberation and pharmaceutical-fueled cognition boost.

The credibility of (a), the fact that the apes showed restraint in the use of lethal violence against people, is a matter on which reasonable primates can disagree. To me, it simply indicates that the apes' cognitive upgrade came with a more developed ability to weigh the foreseeable consequences of actions, so (as I read it) they were wise enough to reason that excessive violence would bring ruinous reprisal from humans, who still vastly outnumbered and out-armed them.

The credibility of (b), destination Muir Woods, strikes me as not only plausible but among the stronger points of the film. Caesar led them to that spot because it was the one wild, ape-friendly setting he knew based on his positive experiences with his human "father," portrayed by James Franco. He knew what it was like there -- a serene place with tall trees and few people -- and he knew how to get there (cross the very prominent bridge). He did not, as a lesser movie would have him do, suddenly develop a detailed knowledge of and longing for a lost African savannah or forest; nor did he sprout a sudden determination to lead the apes to Rule the Galaxy and/or enslave humankind and/or liberate every captive creature and/or right every wrong on earth. His ambitions were bounded and modest -- gather every ape he knows and lead them to the Muir Woods, which were as far from the depredations of captivity and the injustices of people as it was possible, or necessary, to get -- things feel right there in a way that no other setting in his experience can match. That's entirely believable within the terms of this cinematic world, or so I say.   

Saturday, September 3, 2011

That Kind of Drunk

Hand filled with beef

Have you ever been that kind of drunk where you observe off-handedly that the uneaten portion of beef sausage would make for excellent crab bait, and thereon hit upon the idea of carrying it to the beach near sundown and chucking it into the sea? I mean the kind of drunk where the idea of "returning this beef stick to the ocean from whence it came" strikes you as whimsical and interesting rather than merely nonsensical and pointless? To be clear, I speak of the kind of drunk in which you're altered enough to carry out the plan of "returning the beef stick to the sea" but not so altered that you can no longer operate a camera? I mean the kind of drunk in which you're able -- almost -- to convince yourself that chucking some perfectly unspoiled meat into the sunset counts as a piece of performance art rather than an instance of food waste?

I was that kind of drunk a couple of nights ago in Gleneden Beach, Oregon. These are the better photographs I took while in that state.

Stabilizing the beef against the strong breeze, we behold the scene
Last pensive moments
Helpful sign, read by no one save for me