Sunday, December 29, 2013

Déjà-vu All Over Again

Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I say “supposedly” because he later cautioned, “I really didn't say everything I said. Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.” One prediction for the new year, now only a couple of days away, is easy though. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, a disaster from which the world never entirely recovered. So, we will be treated in upcoming months to a slew of books, movies, and documentaries on the subject. It is all to the good that we should hear the timeless warnings inherent in the events of that year, though whether or not we also shall heed them is another question.

In 1913 global living standards maintained their decades-long rise, international trade reached new heights, and liberal democracy (mostly in the form of constitutional monarchies) continued to extend its reach. Though life still was very harsh for most of the world’s population, a slow evolution toward better and more enlightened times seemed inevitable. The world’s leaders by and large got along congenially. At the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise and Prince Ernst August of Cumberland, the collegiate (and related) Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, and Nicholas II rubbed elbows pleasantly; George wore a Prussian uniform and Wilhelm wore a British one. A year later they were at war, and no one seemed to know exactly why. A series of miscalculations had escalated a limited regional skirmish into a general war that nobody wanted.

The Economist noted in a leader the other day some ominous similarities between 2014 and 1914. The USA plays the role of the British Empire, a superpower on the wane. The rapidly expanding power of China parallels the earlier growth of Germany. Japan is France, and so on. (The magazine doesn’t cast the role of Austria. Iran? North Korea? Or is one of those Serbia? How does Russia fit?) No one is looking for a general conflict in 2014, but there are unresolved international issues (minor in the scheme of things, but important to those involved) regarding territory and other matters; miscalculation and escalation over them are real possibilities. The most serious parallel danger with 1914, the leader suggests, is complacency – a general failure to recognize the hazards that can accompany a misstep. One big advantage we have over our ancestors in 1914 is a historical record of their mistakes. One hopes this will be enough.

Not all conflicts are international ones, of course. Some are strictly personal – sometimes entirely internal. My own private 1914 was in the 1990s. My 1916 too. A little less complacency would have helped there as well. I think I’ve learned the appropriate lessons, though. Then again, I might not have learned 'em, but you never know.

Down Below (Stay Down Here Where You Belong), written by Irving Berlin in 1914: Tiny Tim’s rendition. (I posted this once in 2011, but, hey, the blog is about repeating history)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bosonic and Sillytonian, Dude

Native speakers of English have the linguistic equivalent of the financial advantage held by citizens of a nation with an international reserve currency (dollar, euro, pound, yen, Swiss franc and precious few others). Exchanges, verbal and commercial, are just easier for them when away from home. By the accidents of history, English has become the de facto global language. Chinese has more native speakers, but only modest global reach; Mandarin won’t get you far in Amsterdam or Dar es Salaam. Spanish also has more native speakers, but it is of limited use in Zurich, Lagos, or Singapore. People who speak English as a first language number between 375 million and 400 million, but the people who speak it as second language are the folks who give English its international punch. When you combine native and non-native speakers, they total well over a billion, if you are generous with proficiency standards, and they are spread around the world.

That’s not to say native speakers of English won’t be baffled sometimes by versions of English they encounter elsewhere. As an example, Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue quotes his travel brochure from Urbino, Italy: “The integrity and thus the vitality of Urbino is no chance, but a conservation due the factors constituted in all probability by the approximate framework of the unity of the country, the difficulty od communications, the very concentric pattern of hill sistems or the remoteness from hi-ghly developed areas, the force of the original design proposed in its construction, with the means at the disposal of the new sciences of the Renaissance, as an ideal city even.”  We can sort-of see what the author of that sentence was getting at, but that is surely more to our credit than to his. In fairness, though, it is more competent than any stab of mine at Italian likely would be.

English infiltrates other languages, often to the annoyance of language purists. So (to cherry pick just a few) Germans have Teenagers, Romanians board a trolleybus, and French wear jeans. The Japanese prefer to alter English borrowings so they roll off the tongue more like native words, e.g. erebata (elevator), chiizu (cheese), nekutai (necktie), and sarada (salad). If it’s any comfort to those purists, English at least returns the favor by absorbing foreign vocabulary easily, such as tycoon and honcho from Japanese,bamboo from Dutch (actually from a Dutch mispronunciation of a Malay word), and yogurt from Turkish, to take a few random examples.

The size of the English vocabulary (excluding most chemical names and scientific designations, which would drive up the figure into millions) is often guesstimated at about 600,000, a number that grows by about 25,000 per decade. In truth, nobody really knows because there is no official body that decides what is and isn’t English. There is no equivalent to L'Académie française which holds the reins on French. The closest to a standard dictionary is the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and the editors merely try to keep up with current vocabulary and usage rather than dictate what it should be.

The OED updates four times per year. This year’s December update added 500 words and modified 1000 definitions of existing entries. The list of new entries is remarkably tame this time, and is mercifully light (or should I say “lite,” which is in the OED) on the texting abbreviations of the sort added last year. A few samples:

Bureaucratese – The dense language of officialdom. (I’m surprised this wasn’t included years ago.)
Vacay – vacation. (Does this phonic curtailment irk you as much as me?)
Virtuecrat –  Someone, especially in authority, who preaches his or her own morals as a cultural imperative. (The person described is irksome, but I like the word.)
Badassery – The behavior, attitude, or actions of a badass (What else?)
Bosonic – Of or regarding bosons. (Though a particle physics term, this might catch on outside the lab if we use it slangily. Since forces are carried by bosons, I see some real possibilities for this, as in, “What you're saying is like totally bosonic, Dude!”)
Emoji – icons used in texting. (Borrowed from Japanese, the word is not etymologically related to “emoticon” but probably was picked up by English-speakers because it looks as though it is.)
Cramdown – a court ordered settlement, bankruptcy resolution, or reorganization, as in “cram down their throats.” (The OED doesn’t mention divorce settlements, but I suppose they would qualify.)
Sillytonian – a silly person (n.) or in the manner of a silly person (adj.). Though new to the OED, sillytonian is not a new word: it was popular in the 18th century. (Even a cursory glance around indicates that this word is ripe for revival.)

Are native English speakers so famously monoglot because they need to keep up with their own language?  I doubt it, because most of us don’t keep up with it. Laziness is a better explanation. We can get away with being functionally monolingual, so most of us are – if indeed we are even that. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The average reading level is at the 8th- to 9th-grade level” in the US and “one out of five read at the 5th-grade level and below.” These numbers haven’t budged in nearly two decades, and, despite large real increases in school budgets since the ‘70s, actually are worse than four decades ago. Maybe we need to outsource English.

Help may be on the way, though, thanks to teens’ passion for texting. According to a study conducted by City University in London, texting improves “phonological awareness and reading skill in children.” But then a University of Winnipeg study shows that teens who text 100 times or more per day (a pretty average number, strange as that sounds to older generations) are more likely to be shallow and unethical. Referencing Nicolas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) who hypothesized that heavy social media use is associated with cognitive and ethical superficiality, Dr Paul Trapnell of the University of Winnipeg said “The values and traits most closely associated with texting frequency are surprisingly consistent with Carr’s conjecture that new information and social media technologies may be displacing and discouraging reflective thought.” Damn, it’s always something.

Marianne Faithfull Broken English

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Midwinter Day’s Stream

More snow has fallen since last week, but nothing unmanageable. There was a need to dig through the wall of snow (largely compacted into ice) stretched in front of my driveway by the street plows, of course, but that was to be expected. The roads have remained passable thanks to those same plows. Nonetheless, I’m glad to have my old 1998 GMC 4WD pick-up, if only to navigate my driveway. The driveway inclines upward from the road. It is not steep but it is long, so 2WD vehicles commonly lose traction about halfway up. This has advantages: I’m not as keen on random visitors as I once was.

I haven’t taken my new little Chevy (see November 7 blog) out in the snow at all. I probably should, just to see how it handles, but probably won’t. Nor will I be going out on horseback. In years past I would trail ride in the winter without a thought. Nowadays I’m likely to give it a thought – and go on thinking about it until Spring.

While the cold presently is a deterrent, in truth I have regretted having chosen to ride in the snow only once, and that was when I was all of 13 years old. Pocasset was generally a good-tempered horse (I don’t know why he was named after a town in Massachusetts), but every now and then he would do something odd. One snowy winter day he suddenly decided to gallop off at full speed. Many horses do this – typically for no discernible reason – and at age 13 I didn’t have the power or skill to stop. A runaway will tire eventually, and, if you can’t stop him, the trick is simply to hang on until then. On this occasion, however, he came rushing up to a stream. He didn’t like water, so he planted his hooves at the water’s edge. Obeying Newton’s First Law of Motion, I flew over his head and splashed down on my back in the middle of the icy stream. The water was just deep enough to soak my clothes and fill my boots. It was a very long, very chilly ride back to the stable. By luck rather than skill I still held the reins by one hand as I lay in the water, or it would have been a long chilly walk back.

At home while warming up after my unplanned bath, I heard my cat fussing at the back door. He was a long-hair (no special breed) and was soaked from the tip of his tail to the neck, so an enormous fluffy head topped a bedraggled skinny wet body. He had walked on the ice on the pond in the back yard and fallen through. I knew just how he felt.

Despite regrettable experiences on ski slopes and on ice, I’m not totally averse to hibernal sports even today, but I’m quite sure I won’t be joining the Polar Bear Club for midwinter swims. Pocasset dissuaded me long ago.

From the back door

I trust the Republican Guardsman didn’t splash in the Seine

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tahiti on Ice

On Monday, the first substantial snow of the season fell in NJ. “Substantial” is a deliberately vague choice of adjectives. It was nothing like the 50 inches (127cm) that fell on the northeastern US in the Blizzard of 1888, a storm that killed 400 people, buried thousands of houses under drifts, shut down railroads, and sank 200 ships. It was nothing like the 34 inches (86cm) that fell on NJ in February 11, 1899, setting a state record for a single day (the snow of the Blizzard of ’88 fell over 2 days). It was not at all like the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975 in the Midwestern US that killed 58 people and 100,000 farm animals. It wasn’t like “Snowmegeddon” that shut down the Northeast in February 2010 – DC, which usually gets off fairly lightly, piled up 32.4 inches (82.3cm) in that one. It wasn’t even like the freak October snowstorm of 2011 that caught most leaves in NJ, NY, and CT still on the trees, bringing them down on power lines and cutting off the electricity of millions. No, it was just an ordinary snowfall of a few inches. Because of accompanying icy conditions, however, the snow was enough to shut local schools for a day and to make driving treacherous until late afternoon. There are likely to be several more snowfalls just like it before Spring, and a there is a fair chance a few will be considerably bigger. Then again, we could have scarcely any snow at all this winter; in these parts one never knows.

With regard to storms as well as other life challenges, I try not to fight the big ones more than I have to. I have to shovel out the walks around my office, replace the mailbox by my driveway (it is a foregone conclusion that street snow plows will take out my mailbox once or twice each winter – yes it’s regulation height and distance), and check the furnaces, but otherwise I’m content indolently to sit out a snowstorm at home on the couch with a book or DVD.

I made an exception to my “don’t fight it” rule during the Blizzard of 1996, which over three days dropped 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow on the Northeast. My future ex of the time was pretty adamant about getting from NYC to her home on the VA/NC border, so we drove relentlessly through the snow. The NJ Turnpike closed behind us shortly after we passed beyond it. We continued in near whiteout conditions on Route 13 on the Delmarva Peninsula. There were no other cars on the road because, we later learned, this road, too, was officially closed. As far as I could see, there was no road. I simply guessed that there must be one between the buildings and trees on each side, and apparently guessed correctly. (A few years later we had a similarly ill-considered drive into the face of Hurricane Floyd, but that is another story.) Had we begun the trip an hour later we never would have made it – the snow on the road simply would have been too deep. As it was, despite our steady southward progression out of the worst of the storm, it was a squeaker. This episode was just one of various exceptions I made to my general life rules in the late '90s – a symptom of the onset of “middle-age crazy,” I suppose. I since have returned to them and have no plans to joyride in the next blizzard.

Despite the relative mildness of Monday’s reminder that I do not live in the tropics, however, the event raised the question of why, in fact, I don’t live in the tropics. The question occurs to me every year at the first significant snowfall, and I have yet to come up with a good answer. Humans are, after all, tropical creatures who emerged from East Africa. The only snow our far ancestors ever saw was the distant cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. Yet, our great aunts and uncles marched into chilly climes at surprisingly early dates. 780,000-year-old flint artifacts have been uncovered at Happisburgh in East Anglia in the UK. Hardly a balmy spot for a winter vacation today, it was nippier then. What were the flint-knappers thinking? I imagine they were thinking the hunting, fishing, and watercress were good, even though their toes were chronically cold. Did they have second thoughts when the first snows of the year fell? I’m guessing they did.

Inertia plays a large part in all my decisions, and it surely plays the dominant part in this one. I have investments in my current location of both the financial and social sort, so pulling up stakes for the sake of warm toes thus far has seemed like too much trouble for the benefit. Homo antecessor, the presumed ancient inhabitants of Happisburgh, probably made much the same excuse. Nonetheless, each time I chip ice off the front steps, the appeal of Tahiti grows. One day, I may listen to the toes.

Simon and Garfunkel Hazy Shade of Winter

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mash Clash: Final Derby Bout of the Season

My father used 12-07-41 as the combination to his combination-lock attaché case because he knew he’d never forget it. (I’ve since changed it.) It’s a small example of how much the date December 7 impinged on the consciousness of those who lived through World War 2. While still much better remembered than, say, the once unforgettable April 9 (Appomattox), the 7th no longer has such a reflexive association among the 96% of the population born after that date in 1941. Nonetheless, I was pleased to commemorate the day in my own way by attending a much more good-natured bout than the one that began in Hawaii 72 years ago.

Last night, December 7, was the last bout of the roller derby season in nearby Morristown. Hosted by the Jerzey Derby Brigade, "Wreck the Halls" was a mash-up, which is a match between two ad hoc teams: Red and Green, in this case, formed by skaters from the JDB and from other NJ and PA leagues. While mash-ups typically include above-average skaters, they haven’t had much chance to practice together, so individual skills increase in importance while team strategy diminishes – not vanishes, but diminishes.

In the first jam, both jammers were from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: #81 VeroniKa Gettsburger for Green and #2 Elysium for Red (the pro forma “home” team). Green edged into an early lead, and it soon became evident that a depth of strong jammers was the reason. #911 Brass Muscles was effective at forcing her way through the pack, #8 Lil Mo Peep found and exploited holes, #17 Beast Witherspoon showed her experience, and #81 was simply outstanding. They were supported by energetic blocking by the rest of the team. Red also sported effective jammers, however, and the blocking was exceptional, notably by #VH1 LL Kill J who repeatedly slowed down #81 (no easy task) and #0hn0 Disaster Girl who did the same to #911. Blocking was rough and tumble on both sides, with Green #11 Bellakix taken down hard at one point, though she left the track on her own skates. The first half ended with a 131-77 lead for Green.

The lead was not insurmountable at the start of the second half, and Red, once again, was not without good jammers of its own. #1111 Pretty Kayotic was Red’s not-so-secret weapon who repeatedly put points on the board to keep the bout competitive. #2220 Jackie KenneDie could be very hard to stop, relative newcomer #99 Porcelain Brawl skated strongly against stiff blocking, and #3684 CaliforniKate added her experience to the mix. What Red really needed to close the point gap were a few well timed power jams (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box) to exploit. Red didn’t get them – or at least not enough of them. Lil Mo Peep put the final points on the board for Green in the last jam. Final score was 265-149, victory to Green. MVPs were Beast Witherspoon for Green and Porcelain Brawl for Red.

So, derby season is over, but in the Spring when the baseballs start to fly the wheels will start to roll. I’ll be there to see them.

Scene from Kansas City Bomber (1972). It may be unfair to blame this movie for wrecking the original professional leagues, which (after 35 years) went out of business in 1973. After various false restarts, derby got traction again after 2000.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Be-Smurching Lindbergh

At the local cineplex last week, among the trailers preceding second Hunger Games film was one for the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

[Digression: Yes, it bothers me too that a “trailer” can precede anything. 100 years ago the trailers did, in fact, trail, but theater owners learned that audiences wouldn’t stay around for them; so, by 1920 they were being run before the feature. Nonetheless, we have stuck stubbornly to the original word even though it has been inappropriate for 93 years. A similar stubborn adherence to tradition keeps sock sizes different from shoe sizes and the number of packaged hot dogs different from the number of packaged hot dog buns. (Sausages of any kind traditionally were sold by butchers in multiples of six or twelve, and rolls by bakers in multiples of eight or sixteen.)]

Anyway, Walter Mitty is a mild company drone who, in his own active imagination, is a swashbuckling hero. While the trailer ran, I wondered if Walter’s fantasies ever were invaded (as mine sometimes are) by unwanted mental images of his heroism ending in ruin or scandal. James Thurber, author of the short story on which the movie is based, might have had a similar thought, for he wrote another short story, The Greatest Man in the World, about a very flawed hero. Thurber, The New Yorker’s star essayist/cartoonist/short-story-writer in the 1930s, is not as much read these days as he once was, but he should be. His well-mannered satire and self-deprecating humor are refreshing in an age rife with shameless self-promotion. In the short story The Greatest Man in the World, Jack Smurch becomes a hero by making a solo flight around the world. Then, as now, Americans liked their heroes squeaky clean, so Smurch causes consternation. Smurch is so disreputable that his own mother, when interviewed after he took off from New York, says, “Ah, the hell with him. I hope he drowns.”

Lindbergh, of course, was the squeaky clean hero with whom Smurch was meant to contrast. Charles Lindbergh, contrary to common belief, was not the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop in a heavier-than-air aircraft. Two Brits named Jack Alcott and Arthur Brown did this in 1919 in a Vickers Vimy. Taking the shortest route, they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, a distance of 1890 miles (3042km); they landed badly in a bog, but walked away safely. For some reason the feat didn’t attract much attention. Eyes instead were on the New York to Paris route, a distance of 3628 miles (5839km); numerous cash prizes were offered to the first aircrew to make it, notably a $25,000 prize ($325,000 in today’s dollars) offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig. By 1927, aircraft and engine technology was (just barely) up to the task, and in May of that year the 25-year-old Lindbergh pulled it off.

Lindbergh was not just unsullied, he was weirdly so. In 1927 he had no discernible vices and never even had been on a date. For the next decade he was wildly popular. Yet, he, too, had a fall. The reason was politics. When I was young (Charles died in 1974), I heard numerous people of the WW2 generation cuss him out as “that [expletive of choice] fascist.” Lindbergh was not a fascist. He was, however, an isolationist and a pacifist. A majority of Americans also were those things as late as 1941, but Lindbergh, unlike nearly everyone else, didn’t change his mind after December 7. Occasional anti-Semitic remarks in his past, never pretty, suddenly looked even uglier. (Example: “A few Jews add strength and character to a country. Too many create chaos.”) Nowadays, memories of his disrepute largely have faded, but there is a reason (besides shyness) he was so nearly invisible in the 29 years of his life after the war.

Strangely, we are still often surprised when heroes turn out to be mere humans. From the reaction to Lance Armstrong’s revelations, for example, you’d think he had betrayed each and every member of the public personally. More than a few supporters were genuinely surprised when Anthony Weiner (briefly a favorite in the race for mayor of NYC) had yet another sexting scandal. Some folks apparently really care whether or not Beyoncé lip-synced the national anthem.

I suppose it is human nature to mythologize great achievers. Fair enough, but perhaps we’d be less disappointed with them when they err if we regarded them from the start as the ancient Greeks did their mythological heroes: often forgetful, vengeful, violent or downright crazy. According to Kevin Dutton in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, after all, heroics are quite commonly part of the behavior of psychopaths. Heroics aren’t exclusive to them by any means, but even the best of us have our off moments. It may be the ultimate unfairness to expect otherwise.

No More Heroes by Slash

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Siren of Myron

Another Thanksgiving Thursday has come and gone, this year coinciding with my birthday; sandwiches of leftover turkey will continue to be my meals for a couple days to come. Yesterday, I followed a day of overindulgence with yet another shameless vice: watching a bad movie. Not any bad movie. Most bad movies are no fun at all. There is a particular sort of bad movie that is fun to watch. The necessary element that makes a bad film a viewing pleasure is “camp,” which is notoriously hard to define but unmistakable when you see it. Not everyone experiences pleasure in camp – at least not readily; many (perhaps most) can’t get past the badness even so. But for the rest of us, such acknowledged classics as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Philadelphia Story are very nearly matched on the fun scale by I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Wild Women of Wongo, and Chopping Mall. Sometimes the camp in these films is intentional (e.g. Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and sometimes it apparently is not (Showgirls). I find pleasure in films that are very bad indeed. I enjoyed the abysmally reviewed Sucker Punch. I enjoyed Lindsay Lohan in I Know Who Killed Me.

The legendarily bad movie I chose yesterday came to mind thanks to an appearance by director Quentin Tarantino on The Tonight Show several days earlier. Tarantino does not make bad movies: he pulls off the neat trick of making flicks that are both campy and very good. His violent and abrasive fare is not everyone’s cup of tea, but his movies are well regarded by critics and always do good box office. What struck me as odd, however, was Quentin’s story to Jay Leno about fist fights he had in NYC. He seemed rather proud of them in an old-fashioned masculine way reminiscent of Hemingway – not Hemingway the writer, but Hemingway the man. Following the peculiar paths by which our minds link one memory to another, the story also reminded me of a very different masculine vision in a novel by Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge.

After The Tonight Show, I pulled the novel from my shelf. It was a 1968 edition hardcover that probably was the very one I read in 1968 while in prep school – it was a recreational read at the time, not a school assignment. Parents would have gone ballistic had this book been assigned as schoolwork; some had objections enough to Ovid.

The gist: the protagonist, once Myron Breckinridge, thanks to the good surgeons of Copenhagen, had become Myra. She doesn’t reveal her other-gendered past when she takes a teaching position at an actors school in LA. Myra is a classic film aficionado who argues that no insignificant film was made between 1935 and 1945. The book is rife with references to these films. She asserts that every culture has a mythology from which it derives an identity, and the movies of 1935-45 form the American mythology; the actors of the era are the gods and goddesses of our myths. They define our sense of ethics, our world view, and our ideals of masculinity and femininity. She believes the sex roles embodied in these films were all very well for building a nation and fighting Nazis, but are inappropriate to a 1968 world facing overpopulation and nuclear weaponry. She wants to remold our mythology by means of the movies. She wants to create an America and (to the extent Hollywood movies have global reach) a world that is more bisexual and less dominated by traditional masculine bluster. The birthrate thus will fall and pressure will be eased on the nuclear trigger. A school for actors is as good a place to start as any.

The traditional gender types reflective of ’35-45 are embodied by two students at the film school who plan to marry. Rusty is handsome, swaggering, and a bit of an ass. His wholesomely pretty and somewhat air-headed girlfriend Mary-Ann wants nothing more than a white picket fence and four children with Rusty. Myra sets out to remold them by sexually humiliating Rusty and seducing Mary-Ann. She considers it a great success when the shattered Rusty shouts he is “sick of women.” He then acts so hostile to Mary-Ann that she announces, “I’ll never marry! I hate men!” Both are now better able to bring Myra’s vision to their future screen roles. Bisexuality is a double-edge sword, however, and Myra’s plans are endangered when she finds herself (the part of her still Myron) falling for Mary-Ann.

This book was made into a movie in 1970. Raquel Welch and Rex Reed are Myra/Myron. Also in the movie are a 77-year-old Mae West, a young Tom Selleck, and an even younger Farah Fawcett. The film bombed at the box office so badly that sales of the novel (previously a best-seller) nearly stopped. The vast majority of critics hated it, despised it, reviled it. Even the favorable review in The New York Times warned of the need for “a strong stomach.” It is listed in Harry Medved’s book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. Despite this, the film always has had a cult following. It seemed perfect for Friday viewing.

The film proved to be an ideal pick. It was bad in all the right places, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Fair warning: the majority of viewers surely still will hate this movie. (A quick peek at Rotten Tomatoes shows that they do.) There is likely to be some distaste even among some of the cadre normally as easily pleased by camp as I. Yet, Myra in many ways was far in advance of its time. The film looks good, too, which counts for something. Though some critics complained about them, the clips of classic films inserted into the movie work well in my opinion at setting the tone. While I’ll not contend that this is a misunderstood good movie, my only real personal complaint with Myra is the deviation from the ironic ending of the book, in which (*spoiler*) Mary-Ann is married to a surgically re-altered Myron; the movie (big *spoiler*) tells us at the end that Myron's adventures as Myra were just a dream. The movie ending is just not very satisfying.

I suppose one could argue that, despite being fictional, Myra succeeded. The marriage and birth rates indeed have fallen since 1970 to all-time lows, and perhaps ongoing changes (to which she contributed) in sex roles are a reason. Traditional hetero attitudes sound increasingly quaint when not actually politically incorrect. Gender roles have lost definition. Quentin seems out of step. Come to think of it, maybe omitting the marriage of Myron and Mary-Ann was the correct decision for the movie after all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Getting Past the Future

The books on the shelves of my home library are not so numerous as to need Melvil Dewey’s organizational help. There are enough, however, for something simpler to be useful. Fiction (all types and genres) is alphabetical by author, history is roughly chronological by subject matter, and all the other nonfiction is packed together – a rough and ready arrangement, but good enough. Even so, I occasionally misfile something, effectively making the book invisible until I stumble on it by accident. This happened the other day: when putting away some Jim Thompson, I noticed Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on the shelf below. I don’t think I was being intentionally ironic when I long ago misfiled it amid the fiction.

I read Future Shock when it was first published in 1970. It was inspired by the technological revolution of the 20th century and the social revolution that accompanied it. Indeed it had been a remarkable 70 years. I often think about the changes my grandparents experienced in their lifetimes. All were born in or before 1900, and they witnessed a horse-and-buggy world transform into one with satellite communications, jetports, superhighways, consumer electronics, frozen foods, television, and space flight. My paternal grandfather left Austria-Hungary in a horse-drawn hay rick and revisited Budapest in a Boeing 707.

We often hear how in the 21st century “technological change is accelerating.” It really isn’t. I’m not casually dismissing the internet and cell phones, though mobile phones existed as early as 1946; they just were in cars because the power sources were too clunky to carry around. The significance of present-day communications and computing power is enormous. Nevertheless, someone who fell asleep in 1970 and woke up in 2013 would not be astonished at the way we live. If anything, he’d be disappointed there are no moon bases and sentient computers as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A single day of instruction could get him functional (not proficient, but functional) on a PC and cell phone, neither of which is difficult to learn to use. Otherwise, daily life is just not that different from 1970 -- mine isn't, even though I now write for a blog site instead of (as in that year) a school newspaper. A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1900 and woke up in 1970, on the other hand, would have been awestruck and would have taken months to get up to speed.

So, 1970 was a ripe time for folks to feel shocked by the onrushing future, and Toffler caught the vibe. Many of the points Toffler made are still valid. The nature and pace of modern life, being so at variance with the life for which humans evolved, evoke a constant sense of angst in us. We are likely to interact, however fleetingly, in an average week (sometimes in a day) with more strangers than a Paleo human would have seen in a lifetime. Our friends and family scatter over thousands of miles – often around the globe. We are surrounded by an immense wealth of packaged foods and manufactured goods, even though a diminishing proportion of us is engaged in their production; most of the modern workforce is in services. Impermanence is the hallmark of contemporary life. Change itself – in jobs, homes, partners, property, location, and technology– is the only certainty. Toffler wasn’t describing all this as a problem to be fixed, but as an inevitability to which we must adapt.

People often react to impermanence by trying to anchor themselves to some tradition. They substitute the Rotary Club for a clan, since a club meeting in Phoenix is much like one in Manchester. They retain long distance friendships. They opt for faux traditional architecture. None of this quite dispels the sense that everything is provisional and temporary.

In a life where nothing lasts, we often are exhorted to “embrace change.” Like most facile advice (“straighten up and fly right”; “buck up, kiddo”; “eat less and exercise more”) this is more annoying than useful. We know full well we should do those things; if it were as easy as saying them, we’d already be doing them. Following such nagging advice runs up against some the very same ingrained primate predilections that cause our angst in the first place. However, whether or not we like change, it helps a little to be unsurprised by it – to accept, at least intellectually, that it is inevitable. Besides, for all the angst of modern life, it still beats hunting mammoths with a spear.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why I Hate DB Cooper

Retrospectives are common on anniversaries ending in zeroes. So, naturally enough, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination is receiving a lot of attention. I don’t think there is anything much I can add to this endlessly dissected event. The official line and the various conspiracy theories are all well known. (My favorite – not the one I believe, but just my favorite – is still the one presented in Barbara Garson’s 1967 satirical play Macbird, with a JFK-type character as Ken O’Dunc, LBJ as MacBird, and Ladybird as Lady MacBird.) “Where were you when…?” no longer is a question asked very often, for the simple reason that for more than 70% of the US population the answer is “I wasn’t born yet.” I’m among the minority that does remember 1963, however, so my answer is “elementary school.” They closed the school early and sent us home.

So, having nothing beyond this minor personal datum to add to this upcoming anniversary, I’ll pick another upcoming anniversary on which to reminisce: one without zeroes. On November 24, 1971, the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history took place. The perpetrator called himself Dan Cooper. The middle initial “B” was bestowed on him by the press. He never used it, but the error has stuck anyway. The well-mannered and politely spoken Cooper informed a flight attendant on Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle that he had a bomb in his brief case. He flashed open his case long enough to reveal something that looked like a bomb. He demanded $200,000 and four parachutes. When the Boeing 727 landed in Seattle, the money (all of which was first photographed by the FBI) was delivered, the plane was refueled, and Cooper allowed the passengers off the plane. Cooper told the pilot to fly south at 10,000 feet and specifically ordered him to deploy flaps at 15 degrees. Cabin pressurization isn’t required at 10,000 feet and the flap setting prevented the 727 from exceeding 200 mph (322kph) – that he would know this indicates at least some familiarity with the aircraft. Cooper donned a parachute, strapped the money to his waist, lowered the aircraft’s rear staircase, and jumped out somewhere over Oregon. He was never captured and no body ever was found. Though many possible suspects have been proposed by amateur investigators in the years since, the true identity of the skyjacker remains unknown to this day.

The FBI claimed from the start that the odds were heavily against Cooper’s survival given the airspeed, the altitude, the -70F exterior air temperature, and the remote wilderness below the aircraft. The problem with this assertion is that it is demonstrably untrue. How? Because there are still 727s flown by private owners for the purpose of commercial skydiving. Jumpers not only successfully and repeatedly duplicate the Cooper jump, they pay extra to do it. Perhaps an inexperienced jumper would have a rougher time of it, but we don’t know anything about Cooper’s level of experience. Furthermore, while that part of Oregon certainly has deep woods, it is not really a wilderness. In 1980, a few miles from a roadway, a 9-year-old boy found $5800 in the woods that matched serial numbers from the ransom money. The cash was decayed but still together in three neat packets, with $200 removed from one, so it didn’t just scatter out of the sky. This is certainly curious, but there is no way to know what it means. Is this evidence Cooper died? Did Cooper drop some money while walking out of the woods, or even deliberately plant it as misdirection? We just don’t know. 

Cooper didn’t injure anyone and he was polite, so his exploit earned him a certain cachet with the public. The “gentleman bandit” always has had a popular appeal, whether real (Black Bart, John Dillinger) or fictional (Cary Grant in It Takes a Thief, David Niven in The Pink Panther). There have been books, songs, movies, and TV shows about Cooper. There is a Cooper Day event in Ariel Washington.

So, what is my beef with DB Cooper? Those who don’t remember the world of 1971 scarcely can imagine what a lax and trusting place the US was when it came to security. There were no metal detectors, pat downs, or baggage searches at airports. No one asked for your ID before you boarded a plane. Your ticket was all you needed, and on some flights not even that; on the shuttle between NYC and DC, for example, you could buy your ticket from the flight attendant after boarding, totally anonymously. Hardly any businesses other than banks and casinos bothered with security cameras. Despite the fact that the US was at war and had several small but violent insurrectionary groups, public buildings were barely guarded. I could and did enter the Capitol Building in DC and wander around on my own without once being challenged. Hardly ever did we feel watched. Whatever the other ills of the era may have been, in this regard it was a very comfortable time.

Nowadays we always feel watched. Getting on a plane is an obstacle course. Never mind the Capitol, even my local county courthouse, a building that once left a half dozen entrances unlocked, can be entered only by filing through a guarded checkpoint with metal detectors and a sign-in sheet. Anonymity has all but vanished in public or private life. Try renting a hotel room without a credit card; oh, they’ll accept cash, but they still want a record of your card. Cooper is not solely responsible for these changes, which began long before 9/11, but he certainly is one reason for them – he is directly responsible for stiffer screening of airline passengers and for the expansion of the sky marshal program. Intrusive security may be a fact of modern life, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. To the extent that Cooper and people like him have caused the rest of us to be saddled with these measures, it is perfectly fair to hate them all.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Scranton Rolls through Morristown

On November 9 The Corporal Punishers women’s roller derby team on its home rink in MorristownNJ, faced the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Roller Radicals.

The bout began promisingly for Morristown with #394 Voldeloxx scoring on the first jam; #187 Maggy Kyllanfall and #911 Brass Muscles added to an early lead. It didn’t last. In a power jam, #81 VeroniKa Gettsburger closed up most of the gap, and #2 Elysium took the Radicals into the lead; both skaters were invaluable to Scranton and seemingly tireless for the duration of the bout. Scranton’s strong defense often formed solid walls that the Punishers found difficult to bypass or penetrate. #1200 Liberty Violence, among others, delivered individual hard hits for Scranton. By the half-time whistle, the Roller Radicals had built their lead with the score at 113-69.

Halftime included a demonstration by children and adults of the Jersey Judo Karate Academy.

The second half began with the Corporal Punishers determined to regain momentum. The Morristown defense stiffened, with #63 Raven Rage showing her usual aggression, and #VH1 LL Kill J Stopping #2 Elysium at a key moment. Morristown’s opportunity came in a power jam which Voldeloxx was able to exploit with multiple passes through the pack. #1111 Pretty Khaotic and #8 L’il Mo Peep steadily added points, while #3684 CaliforniKate made a triple pass through the pack in a power jam for MorristownScranton didn't remain idle. The Radicals, too, continued to block and score effectively, but the Punishers continued to close, aided by another power jam multiple pass by Pretty Khaotic. With three minutes remaining, the score stood at 200-172 in favor of Scranton. A triple pass power jam by Maggy Kyllanfall narrowed the spread further and brought the final outcome into doubt. In an exciting finish, Scranton was able to re-expand its edge, with the score standing at 223 -190 in favor of the Roller Radicals at the final whistle.

MVPs for the bout were Pretty Khaotic for the Corporal Punishers and Elysium for the Roller Radicals.

Skating with an Edge

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Road Worrier

A month ago my venerable Jeep Cherokee decided it had had enough. (See October 15 blog: So It Goes.) My pickup (as old as the Jeep, but with 112,000 fewer miles on it) is still in good shape, but this is not a suitable vehicle for all purposes, so the purchase of a replacement car could be put off no longer. The deed is done. A brief finger-count reveals to me that my new vehicle is my 10th in my life. I could count differently. I could include a 1965 GMC pickup that I frequently used, for example, but it wasn’t “mine” formally or informally; it was my dad’s. There were two vehicles during my ill-fated marriage that were “ours,” but as a matter of practice they weren’t ours: they were hers. On the other hand there was a Jeepster that wasn’t in my name (again, it was my dad’s), but which nonetheless I do count, since I was the most common driver of it. So, I’ll stick with a 10-count. Many of our significant memories involve our vehicles in one way or another. The nice round number 10 invites a bit of retrospection. The ones below were purchased new unless I mention otherwise.

1970 Jeepster C101 Commando
My father bought this Jeep in the autumn of '69. I think it reminded him of the war surplus Willys he had owned in 1946. This was the first vehicle I drove on my own -- i.e. with no instructor in the passenger seat. The Jeepster was an excellent vehicle on which to learn to drive: a V6 stick shift with no power steering, no power breaks, and a clutch with scarcely any slippage. Every other vehicle I’ve driven since – regardless of transmission type – has been a breeze by comparison. It wasn’t very practical for most of my father’s needs on or off the job (he always had a full-bed pickup for work), so I was its driver most of the time for the next decade – almost exclusively after the first few years. By 1976 it developed a reluctance to start in the morning that even changing the starter didn’t cure, so I took to parking it on an incline. Even before trying to start it conventionally, I would let it roll forward, turn on the key, and engage second gear. Worked every time. Fondest memory: my dad’s clear but unvoiced expressions of alarm in my early driving days on the occasions he was in the Jeepster with me.

1973 Ford Maverick
This was the first car actually in my own name. Though it sported a 302 V8, it wasn’t terrible on gas by the standards of the day, perhaps because such a powerful engine in a light compact car never had to strain. Good thing, because the first oil crisis struck just a few months after I bought it. The Ford remained with me for the next 7 years and took me around the US. They were eventful years for me, as one’s 20s tend to be; the Maverick was a part of them. (The car figures in two of my nonfiction short stories over at : The Driving Lesson and The Roxy Caution.) Fondest memories: 1) extracting my girlfriend Angela from the seat belt when the buckle inexplicably jammed – no doubt a more amusing circumstance for me than for her – and 2) navigating LA in those pre-GPS days en route to the Hollywood apartment building where my sister Sharon resided with her first husband Frank.

1979 Ford F150 pickup
The truck had an automatic transmission and the same 302 as my Maverick, but otherwise it was no-frills. Nonetheless, it was with me until 2001. Though utilitarian, this is the one vehicle I regret having sold. It did, however, belong to the model years in which the Ford transmissions had a quirk. The shift sometimes would be obstructed from sliding into “Park.” If you didn’t look, but just shifted by feel, you could think you were in “P” when in fact you were hung up between “P” and “R.” If you left the vehicle to open a garage door or some such thing, the shift could slip back into “R.” This leads to a fondest memory (though I’d be hard pressed to explain why it is): I exited the truck to open a garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off on a backwards journey – it had shifted into reverse. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t obey me. It arced off the driveway to the left, slipped between two big black birches, and smacked into a flexible young cedar. The cedar bent and thereby stopped the Ford without noticeable damage. I scolded the truck for running away but praised it for its choice of trees.

1981 Dodge Aries
This was a “K car,” the platform designed to bring Chrysler back after its brush with bankruptcy. With front wheel drive and a fuel-saving 4-cylinder engine, it was considered innovative in the day. Though it had and still has a fairly decent reputation, no car ever gave me more trouble. Its worst habit: it would vapor lock unpredictably in any time or place and sputter to a halt. There was nothing to do at that point but to wait for the engine to cool down, after which the fuel in the line would reliquefy and the engine would start as though nothing were wrong. Usually this took 20 minutes or so, but on one occasion the Aries stranded me overnight in NYC. Fondest memory: driving into the driveway of my first house (more of a cottage, really) after the closing.

1982 Oldsmobile Toronado
This had been my mom’s car. I bought it from her in 1986. In a reverse of the Aries experience, the V8 diesel Toronado had a terrible public reputation, but it served me well and flawlessly. The car also was economical considering its size. The Toronado was the largest and most upscale of any of my cars; with its long hood, it made a U-turn feel like a circumnavigation of the globe. Fondest memory: the drives to Mineola from 1986 to 1989, the year when the young lady I’d visit there finally gave me one of those 1:00 a.m. “We have to talk” phone calls.

1990 Ford Taurus
This was an unremarkable but reliable vehicle, which is all I ask a car to be. I none-too-successfully chased a blues singer while it was my primary ride. Fondest memory: squeezing said blues singer and her band into the car in Greenwich Village for a ride out to a gig in Denville, NJ.

1995 Ford Taurus
Based on my experience with the previous Taurus, I bought another one. This one had more bells and whistles, but also had a familiar problem: vapor lock, It didn’t happen as often is it did in the Dodge, but there is never a convenient time for it to happen at all. I met my future ex while driving it. Fondest memory: selling it.

1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee
I inherited the Jeep when my mom died in 2001 – my father had died the previous year. In the dozen years thereafter the Jeep took me anywhere I wanted to go, anytime and regardless of road condition. It never got stuck, even in major snowstorms or in Hurricane Sandy. Although it nickel-and-dimed me with small repairs – the worst of them being a wiper motor – it never once stranded me until its very last day on the road when it could go no farther. Fondest memory: teaching a neighbor’s daughter (a sort of quasi-niece) to drive in it.

1998 GMC 2500 Sierra pickup
I inherited the GMC truck at the same time as the Jeep – as a practical matter it already had been mine for a year. It is with me to this day. I don’t put many miles on it. I use it as a back-up transport and…well… as a truck. So, though it is 15 years old, it has less wear and tear than a typical daily user’s 4-year-old vehicle. The 4WD is handy in winter, but the 34 gallon tank makes filling up an expensive proposition. At this point, I see no reason it can’t match my old F150’s 22-year longevity. Fondest memory: as a passenger when my father was behind the wheel.

2014 Chevy Cruze
The size and feel of the new Cruze reminds me a lot of my old Maverick, which (counting only the cars) makes a full circle of sorts. It’s my first Chevy. I haven’t had it long enough for a memory fonder than “driving it home,” but there is time to make more. Given how long I usually keep cars, there is likely to be lots of time.

Chevy Commercial from my birth year 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sound of Silence

In any confabulating group of any size, the conversation inexplicably lapses into awkward silence every now and then. Somehow, no one has anything at all to say. There is a superstition that this happens 20 minutes past the hour and another than it happens every 7 minutes. Neither is true. There is nothing magical about the numbers 20 or 7, but conversational pauses commonly occur several times an hour, so both myths seem almost right.

Some people try to explain the lapses in terms of evolutionary biology. The argument is that that our ancestors sitting around the fire had to shut up occasionally to listen for predators; groups that didn’t have frequent silences got eaten. Maybe, but there is no practical way to test this. In principle, I suppose we could set two groups out in the wild amid top line predators: one (presumably supplied with scripts) would be instructed to talk continuously, and the other would be told to chat and pause naturally. Then we could wait to see how many of each are eaten, but, ethical considerations aside, finding volunteers might be difficult.

Talk generally rekindles when someone finally feels more uncomfortable staying silent than blurting out some inanity. However, there are ways to shorten the pauses. Among them is a product called Chat Pack: questions to spark conversations. I received one as a gift a while back. I haven’t yet used this pack of cards, but the thought occurs to open it now and surmise what conversations might be stirred by the first dozen questions– no cheating. Why a dozen? More might make this blog too long and fewer might not be a fair sample. So, here we go.

1. If you could enter a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby, what would you name your horse?
What? Really? No, that’s not the name. I’m just not sure of what a conversation starter this is. But, I’ll play. How about “Biggest Loser”? The critter couldn’t fail to meet or (most likely) exceed expectations.

2. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want people to remember you for most of all?
Once again, “What?” and “Really?” You know, under those circumstances, it doesn’t really matter much. One of my mom’s sayings was, “Give your flowers to people while they’re alive.” I suppose the same would go for tomatoes.

3. What is your favorite saying or quotation?
I’ve always been fond of Benjamin Disraeli’s ambiguous note to an author who sent him an unsolicited copy: “Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.”

4. Forget about soft sounds like babbling brooks, gentle showers, and warbling birds. What is your favorite loud sound?
Bass guitar. Motorhead would do.

5. If you could change the ending to any movie you have ever seen, what movie would it be and how would you alter the way it ends?
Ok, I’ve got one: AI: Artificial Intelligence. The ending is much too treacle-ish. How about giving David a robotic mom? He then can reject her because she is not real.

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being not at all and 10 being very much so), how superstitious are you?
Split answer here. Intellectually, 1. I’d be lying though, to say that I never feel any unease about “tempting fate” in some way. So, emotionally, 4. It used to be higher.

7. If you were writing an autobiography, what would be the book’s title (besides your name)?
The blog site title would work for that, too: Richard’s Pretension.

8. What is the best $100 you ever spent in your life?
Not on a public blog. Maybe in private, depending on the company.

9. What is something you always used to love to do that, during the past year or two, you feel like you’ve outgrown or lost interest in doing?
Dating. You know the old saying, “The chase is sweeter than the catch?” No it’s not. The catch is fine, but the chase is too much like work.

10. Through the use of a time machine, you are traveling back to the year 1850. You may take with you one, and only one, product or invention from the modern era. What would you take with you to impress and awe our forebears?
First we must assume that my time machine is the only one in existence (ever) with access to 1850 earth. Otherwise, I’ll have to compete with all those other time travelers hawking their goods and endlessly altering the time line.

That assumption allowed, there is no point in showing up with a technology far beyond the scientific understanding of the audience. An iPhone, for example, couldn’t connect to a network anyway. Besides, can you explain properly how it works? I can’t. Electronics in general are out, since they are beyond the industrial capacity of 1850 to duplicate. Something ahead of the time, but fully comprehensible to the natives, would be best. A simple compact internal combustion engine would do – one of the old fully mechanical ones, not one of the new ones constantly tweaked by computer chips: maybe a Chevy straight-6 circa 1950. Any number of technologies could follow from that, and the principles would have been graspable in 1850 – even for the electric starter, since Sturgeon’s electromagnet dates to 1825 and Faraday’s dynamo to 1831. The engine might as well be brought back inside a Chevy.

11. Which punctuation mark would best describe your personality?
Semicolon. It tentatively completes a thought, but keeps the options for the sentence open.

12. Aside from any family occurrence (marriage, special anniversary, birth of a child, etc.), what event or accomplishment would you consider the highlight of your life so far?
See #8.
Would these cards work to break the silence? Most of them probably would, I think. Thanksgiving is coming up, and the usual suspects will be at my table. I’ll keep the cards handy for when our larynxes suddenly cease to buzz.

Pulp Fiction: Uncomfortable Silences

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Frisky Business

On November 2, Risky B’siness, the newest team of the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby), closed out the league season with a lightly attended home bout in Morristown against the Red Bank Roller Vixens. It was Risky’s second bout ever, and the first on its home rink. Both teams are still in the process of building their expertise and strength – in fact I don’t yet have a full roster to match names with the numbers on the Risky B’usiness side.

Nonetheless, the Morristown team demonstrated an edge from the start. This was not for want of talent or aggression on the Red Bank side. The Vixens have a depth of effective jammers, including #88 Hip Czech, #100 Infra Red, #M80 Fire Crack-her, and #2121 Buffy Dee Slayer. Their blockers can hit hard (#007 Pushy Galore among them) and can recover well from hard hits (notable #777). The Risky Bs had a matching field of jammers, however, with #5 showing exceptional stamina, going down from hits and yet getting up to force or scoot her way effectively through the pack. So, too, #949 Dreadlock-Ness Monster and #508 Ruff’n Muff’n. The edge came in blocking. Risky B’s defense was not tougher so much as it was well strategized. Training plainly paid off with Morristown frequently creating no pack situations that forced Red Bank to let the jammer through. It was not a big advantage, but enough of one on which to build a lead. It showed up the most on power jams (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box) which Morristown exploited more successfully.

Risky B’siness picked up an early lead, but the score remained close through most of the first half. Thanks largely to fortuitous power jams, the lead over the Vixens expanded in the minutes before halftime. The second half began with the score at 102-41 in favor of Morristown. The Vixens pushed hard to catch up with #100 Infra Red making notable use of power jams. They racked up points, but so did Risky B’siness. The final whistle blew with a final score of 250-103 in favor of Morristown.

The teams were more evenly matched than the score might make them seem, and very few changes on either side could have made all the difference. Perhaps in a 2014 rematch they will.

Risky – Iggy Pop and Ryuichi Sakamoto

Monday, October 28, 2013

Purging Mischief

As a sleepless midnight rolled around last night, I turned on The Purge, a seasonally appropriate thriller, on satellite TV. The plot: in a near future, a single 12-hour night is set aside each year in which law is suspended. (Star Trek fans may recognize the plot device from The Return of the Archons episode of the original series in 1966.) There is no legal consequence to any crime, including murder. Government workers above “level 10,” (a level not defined in the film) are off limits, and there is some restriction on weaponry (again not specified), though all handguns, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles apparently are OK. Otherwise, citizens are free to commit mayhem to their hearts content in whatever way they please. This catharsis is regarded as good for the popular psyche, good for social harmony on the other 364 ½ days, and good for the economy – not least because the most dependent and costly citizens are also the most vulnerable, and so most likely to be weeded out in the Purge. The movie focuses on a well-to-do family; they think they are safe in their fortified home, but they are not.

The movie is passable – not much more than passable, but passable. It does bring to mind, though, a real but (generally) milder version of the Purge that has faded in recent years, though not vanished. Mischief Night (aka Devil’s Night, Gates Night, Mizzy Night, et al.), dedicated to pranks, was once a much bigger deal. The origins of this very unofficial holiday are uncertain. The earliest known mention in print dates to the 18th century and referred to the eve of May Day – the German version of Mischief Night is still the evening before May 1. In regions where Halloween was celebrated, however, including the USA, it eventually shifted to October 30, the night before Halloween, a holiday already associated with tricks as well as treats.

The most common pranks since the 1930s (committed mostly by tweens and teenagers, unsurprisingly) are often dismissed as “harmless”, e.g. eggings, soaped windows, toilet papering, pumpkin smashing, and the like. Anyone who has tried to wash eggs and soap off his car or house probably has a less tolerant opinion. Nonetheless, these offenses are fairly minor. Others are not. Arson became such a problem in Detroit by the 1980s – with hundreds of fires set in some years – that thousands of volunteers patrol the streets on what is now called Angels Night. Since 2000, this has been largely successful in deterring fires.

My dad was a builder, and when I was growing up he always had new homes under construction. This meant he never was home on Mischief Night (or on Halloween) because of the need to guard those properties. They needed guarding. Construction sites seem to be a special draw to marauding kids and teens. Since one can’t watch everything every minute, they could and did break windows, spray paint obscenities on walls, pour tar on stairs, slash tires of construction vehicles, etc. It used to puzzle my parents that other parents let their kids go out on Mischief Night: What exactly did they think their kids were going out to do? By the time I was out of high school I had joined in guard duty on the new homes on Mischief Night and on Halloween; I did this from the 1970s into the 1990s. If you want to spend a spooky Halloween, spend it alone (with no cell phone) in an unlit, unfinished house on a dark wooded lot.

This experience probably gives me a different perspective of The Purge than many viewers might have. I’ve experienced the downside of a mild form of the practice. On the other hand, in the movie the targets can fight back. I was pretty much confined to shouting, “Hey you kids! Scoot!” I like to think I wouldn’t take advantage of an opportunity to do more, but one can see the attraction.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One Man’s Trash

I don’t often watch programs such as Antique Roadshow, but I understand the appeal to those who do. Who wouldn’t enjoy learning that the old junk in the attic is really a treasure? So far, I’ve been told, my old junk is merely junk. Well, perhaps the tastes of buyers will change someday.

Sometimes the value of old stuff changes not because of the whimsies of collectors, but because of the prices of the underlying materials. During the run-up in gold prices a few years back, lots of people cashed in their old bracelets and school rings. I didn’t buy a school ring in 1970 – $40 seemed too much. That lump of gold would be about $1,500 today.

Gold, as a defensive investment, swings in price largely for psychological reasons, but most materials are priced more on the basis of supply and practical utility. Utility can change with technology. Bauxite (aluminum ore) was all but useless before the Hall–Héroult process made large scale aluminum production feasible in the 1880s, for example. Rare earth elements in recent decades have been boosted thanks to their use in electronics. Many of the byproducts of making kerosene and lubricating oil from petroleum were little more than waste before the internal combustion engine and the petrochemical industry made them the most valuable parts. Probably the most fateful detritus, though, was the slag from radium production in Oolen, Belgium, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, radium was (as it still is) extraordinarily pricy. In the 1930s it fetched $27,000 per gram ($437,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars). The best source of radium was pitchblende (uranium ore); even in the best deposits, tons of ore had to be processed to extract a single gram of radium. The uranium was tossed aside as garbage. Some was used by ceramics manufacturers for glazing, but not much.

In 1915 Robert Rich Sharp, prospector for Union Minière du Haut Katanga, discovered the world’s richest uranium deposit at Shinkolobwe in the Katanga province of the Belgian Congo, presently the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the mine, which operated until 2004, never has been surpassed. The uranium didn’t matter, but Sharp was excited when the assay showed trace amounts of radium. After World War 1, Union Minière shipped the ore to Oolen for radium extraction.

Starting in 1934, some of the most talented physicists the world ever has known (Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Werner Heisenberg, et al.) were experimenting with uranium. They bombarded samples with neutrons and hoped to create transuranic elements. We now know that they succeeded in splitting uranium atoms in multiple experiments, but somehow missed that this was what they were doing. (Most likely, there was a simple and very human reason: they weren’t looking for fission, and so they didn’t see it.) This is sometimes called the “Five Year Miracle”: these incredibly brilliant people failed to make sense of what they were seeing until 1939 when Hahn and Strassmann in Berlin identified the fission byproducts from their uranium experiment; this led to the correct interpretation of the results, including the significance of the U235 isotope and the possibilities of the transuranic element 94 (plutonium). Had this happened earlier (e.g. by Fermi in 1934 – he later was amazed at himself for not having seen it), World War 2 in Europe very likely would have been an atomic war.

Most politicians were clueless about the research on radioactive elements, but many interested lay people were not. Science fiction authors were quick to speculate on the possibilities. HG Wells got the jump on the field with his 1913 story The World Set Free about atomic bombs and nuclear power. Robert Heinlein’s 1940 Blowups Happen about a nuclear reactor accident (the first real reactor was built in 1942, and was a secret) and his 1943 yarn about a full blown nuclear war are almost tardy by comparison. Another forward thinker, fortunately for the West, was Edgar Sengier of Union Minière du Haut Katanga, who realized that the tossed-aside uranium ore might be more than just slag after all; he shipped 1200 tons of it from Belgium to the US just before the outbreak of war, thereby keeping it out of the hands of the Germans who occupied Belgium in 1940. The unguarded ore remained for two years in 55 gallon drums in Staten Island until purchased by the US government for the Manhattan Project.

So, what trash is lying around my property today with such hidden danger and potential as the Oolen garbage heap? There is always lots of fur from my constantly shedding cats on all the furniture. Somehow I don’t see cat fur as a breakthrough wonder material though. Maybe stink bugs. Stink bugs are invasive insects that have overrun many US states, including NJ. When annoyed, the bugs emit an odor. They annoy easily. The stink is so powerful that it must do something incredible other than just drive me out of my own house. Maybe I should start storing the bugs in 55 gallon drums against the day someone discovers what the something might be – perhaps just putting enough of them in a drum together (plus a little radium?) can create a smell so strong it will open a wormhole to another dimension. It smells plausible. There might be money in that.

From 1955, Uranium by The Commodores

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Philly Fillies Filet Foes

In a surfeit of wheeled riches, two Morristown NJ women’s roller derby teams had bouts Saturday night, both tangling with PA teams. One was an away game, however. Indolence cannot be underestimated in my decisions, so I opted for the nearby bout: Corporal Punishers vs. Philly Block Party.

I’d seen Philly skate victoriously last May against the NJRD (290-166), and knew the team to be a formidable one. The Punishers knew, too, and were braced for a good fight. They got one.

Philly scored 23 points in the first jam. It was harbinger of things to come. Voldeloxx, Lil Mo Peep, and Pretty Khaotic jammed gamely while Maggy Kyllanfall showed her usual skill at exploiting (and sometimes creating) holes in opponents’ defenses. They put points on the board for the Punishers. Punisher blocking was strong, with special mention to Raven Rage. Yet there was no denying the simple power of the Philadelphia team.

I like to mention stand-out skaters, but in the case of Philly one might as well read the team roster: As a jammer Twiggy Smalls was extraordinarily smooth as well as fast. Wendy Whiplash, Holden Killfield, and ZZ Top Heavy were effective, whether jamming or blocking. So was everyone else on the team. At the 15-minute mark Philly led 95-18; by half time the lead expanded to over 100 points.

Faced with a strong opponent and daunting point gap, a match becomes less about winning than about fighting the good fight. The Punishers did just that in the second half, upping their game while adding points jam by jam, slowly raising the Morristown score to 90 points. Philly also continued to score. In the final jam of the night, Voldeloxx added 11 points to tip the Punishers over 100. The bout ended with a Philly victory of 349-101 – a strong win, but the PhillyBlock Party knew it had been in a bout. MVPs were Voldeloxx for the Punishers and JK Trolling for Philly.

(Note: Block Party roster is from an earlier bout and doesn't include all of last night's skaters) 

Ginger need only take down Fred with a clean hit to prove her chops as a derby queen

Sunday, October 13, 2013

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, though easy reads, are notoriously difficult to translate into film. The only attempt Kurt himself thought successful was Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), though the plot is the most nonlinear of any of his books. Critics agreed with Kurt, but audiences did not: the film won the Prix de Jury, Hugo, and Saturn awards, but flopped at the box office.

The plot: Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” and randomly relives different parts of his life in non-sequential order. One moment he is in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge where he is captured by Germans, the next he is reliving his wedding night, the next he is a child, the next he is being abducted by aliens, the next he is at a party of fellow optometrists, the next he is a POW in Dresden during the Allied firebombing, the next he is on the alien planet Tralfamadore with fellow abductee and porn star Montana Wildhack, and so on. Despite reliving the episodes over and over, he can change nothing. He relives them as a passive observer because the past, present and future must exist only as they are. As the Tralfamadoreans (who can see all time at once rather than merely one single moment of it) tell Billy, “that is the way things are structured.” Though a person may be suffering or dead at particular moment in time, he is perfectly well and happy in other moments – and all moments exist simultaneously. Time is an illusion created by the limitations of human senses, they tell him; humans cannot see beyond the moment just as they cannot see beyond a limited spectrum of light. The broader spectrum nonetheless is there. “Just concentrate on the good parts,” is their advice.

This fatalistic philosophy is comforting to Billy. He, like the Tralfamadoreans (who, Billy’s daughter believes, are a figment of Billy’s mentally unbalanced imagination), is able to deal with horrible events with the phrase, “So it goes,” because he knows that things are hunky-dory somewhen else. The phrase “So it goes” occurs 116 times in the novel according to one critic – I’ll take his word for it. (Vonnegut, by the way, was a POW in Dresden in 1945, and witnessed the firebombing.)

All this was hard enough to bring to a screen, so the idea of bringing it to a small off-Broadway stage with a minimal set seemed to me utterly preposterous. Yet, that is what the International Fringe Festival did at The Players Theater in Greenwich Village. They pulled it off, too, once again showing that a good script can overcome almost any other limitation. (Yes, good actors help as well, but they can do nothing without the script.)

So far, so good. The play and the company of three friends made for a pleasant evening – until I left the garage at 8th Street and discovered my Jeep Cherokee no longer had power steering – except to the degree I supplied the power. It still was possible to wrestle the machine home, I figured, but by the time I reached 7th Avenue, the engine temperature gauge needle had slammed to the right. (The mechanically inclined among the readers might be saying, “It’s the belt!” Almost right: the belt was intact, but one of the parts which should be turned by it was not.) As you can imagine, getting a vehicle off the streets of NYC and out to a far suburb on a Saturday night is neither simple nor cheap. The play ended at 9:30 PM. I got home at 3:30 AM, hundreds of dollars poorer. So it goes.

A close examination of the Jeep reveals enough problems to conclude that it has reached the end of its useful life – the cost of repairs would exceed its value by far. So it goes. Until last night the Jeep had served long and well. Somewhen else, I’m enjoying those pleasant times and a quasi-niece (that designation is a long story) is learning to drive in it. Tomorrow, all those Columbus Day auto sales will be of some use.

As for last night, I just concentrate on the good parts.

Trailer Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)