Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Pursuit of

Social comparisons based on personal recollections are always suspect. If we go through a personal rough patch in some period of our lives, our memories of that whole era are likely to be soured permanently. More commonly, though, we remember our youthful days as sunny. “It used to be so much better,” is a refrain of the middle-aged and older. Well, it was – for them. All else equal (which it seldom is) of course 22 is better than 52, 62 or 72. But there is one memory of my own that I’m pretty sure is accurate. Decades ago, people used to smile more – in the US anyway. A lot more. Happiness surveys lend some support to this, showing Americans have grown steadily more morose since the 1970s, with women (who used to score as happier than men) showing the greatest disgruntlement: see .

Happiness surveys need to be treated with some caution, since researchers are all-too-humanly likely (but unhelpfully) to structure their questions in terms of their own political prejudices, for example by including in the very definition of happiness something like economic freedom or, alternatively, access to social services; it is no surprise, then, when they find people who live in their preferred political system to be happy. Also, there is a difference between cheerfulness and contentedness, both of which are aspects of happiness; the former is more outwardly directed while the latter is internal. Denmark, for example, by most measures is a pretty contentedly happy place, but, while Danes are nice enough folks, “cheery” and “ebullient” are not really the first adjectives that come to mind when strolling in Copenhagen. Smiles, joviality, and bonhomie have more to do with cheer than contentment, and one often encounters more of cheer in much less affluent places.

If you simply ask people if they’re happy, the subjective responses you get are closer to the way things appear to casual observers. A poll last year which asked this of 150,000 people (a huge sample) around the world showed 7 of 10 happiest countries to be in Latin America: Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, and the Philippines rounded out the top 10. Wealthy, comfortable, pleasant, and well-managed Singapore (ranking 32 places above Panama on the Human Development Index) on the other hand was at the bottom of the happiness list, showing that money and good government had little to do with it. The US was pretty far down the list, too, at 33.

Why the differences between countries and between eras? I suppose we are left only with the explanation “it’s a cultural thing” which is really just a tautology and so no explanation at all. Well then, why have Americans as a “cultural thing” become less cheery, at least superficially, over the past four decades? I don’t know. Once again, political partisans will be tempted to partisan answers, but the international poll results, which show little correspondence to prevailing ideologies or economic factors, make these hard to justify. Cheeriness on these shores is simply less fashionable than it once was, and it always is hard to explain fashion. Vexation and cynicism are more in vogue.

One needn’t obsequiously follow fashion in this matter any more than in others, however. How to face the world and the grumpiness all around is an individual choice. We always can choose to show off our dental work if we wish – and I don’t mean in a grimace – even if we’re not really feeling it, and we can do so without giving up the pursuit of our goals. Besides, cheer is curiously contagious, so you might even get a smile back.

Mighty Aphrodite ending

Monday, May 26, 2014

Frakking Expletives

A casual friend, who never has demonstrated any penchant for science fiction, last night expressed to me his lack of interest in a local political issue (which he himself raised as a topic for discussion) by saying, “Why should I give a frak?”

I had no good answer (I live in another town anyway), so I responded only to his vocabulary.

“I wasn’t aware you were a Battlestar Galactica fan,” I said.

“I’m not,” he answered with a puzzled expression. It turned out he had heard the term on The Big Bang Theory (whose main male characters are scifi fans) and had assumed it derived from the technique for extracting shale gas. “Frak” (alternate spelling “frack”), in the sense he used it, is, of course, actually an expletive invented for the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica in order to get past the censors on broadcast TV. When the series was reimagined in 2004, the writers kept the term largely as an homage to the original.

I’m afraid my discussion of the word dissuaded him from using it again (perhaps permanently), which was not my intention, especially since he reverted to the similar but far older Anglo-Saxon expression instead.

Lots of familiar words have entered English as neologisms from fiction: yahoo (Swift), chortle (Carroll), grok (Heinlein), robotics (Asimov, but derived from Capek’s “robot”), utopia (More), and thoughtcrime (Orwell), to cherry-pick a handful. Burgess, a linguist as well as a novelist, invented Nadsat, a Russian-influenced slang for his teenage gangs in A Clockwork Orange, some of which made it onto Kubrick’s screen version (spatchka, yarbles, ultraviolence, et al) and to a limited extent into common speech. Science fiction is especially rich in neologisms that have made it into colloquial English, and many are rudely insulting in a way my interlocutor would find useful given the usual nature of his conversation.

Mutie (a person odd in appearance or character)
Space cadet (unrealistic and airheaded person)
Fembot (most commonly applied to an attractive woman with whom one disagrees politically)
Pod People (unfeeling people, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
Eloi (from The Time Machine, useless pampered rich people)
Redshirt (someone likely to be killed)
Smeghead (jerk)
Bastich (bastard/bitch, from Judge Dredd)
and the old standby
Martian (someone whose way of thinking is not down to earth)
to name but a few.

Nor is there a shortage of expletives, which might be more useful still:
Zarking fardwarks! (Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Twonk (Red Dwarf)
Tanj (“there ain’t no justice” Heinlein, but popularized by Niven)
Cagal (Harry Harrison)
Kvark (Ewoks)
Welnitz (Farscape)
and so on.

Perhaps I should make a fuller list and pass it along. It’s possible I thereby simply would entrench Anglo-Saxon further in the recipient, and perhaps even evoke some of it. But then again maybe he’ll take up a few of the samples, and I’ll have done my bit to help enrich the common tongue.

From Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


When I was little, like most kids I loved monster movies.

Monster movies are a subset of horror movies, and pundits often attribute the affection the young feel for horror in terms of the pleasure they receive from facing and overcoming their own fears. Some anthropologists even see horror flicks as modern tribal rites of passage. This idea has some merit regarding teens and the truly grotesque movies they watch, but I think it misses an obvious point about younger kids: by and large, young kids don’t find monster movies scary. (If they do, they don’t like them – until their tweens anyway, when they really do begin to enjoy being frightened.) Watch kids play elements from the movies: they are play-acting the monsters, not the people. I did too. This tells us something.

In Forbidden Planet (1956), a sci-fi film and a monster movie (a marvelous double-whammy), Commander Adams (Leslie Nielson) shouts “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious!” So we are. In Forbidden Planet this is literally the case for the character Morbius, whose mind taps an alien technology to generate a physical monster. Freud believed a desire for violence and destruction was rooted in the Death Wish. It needs to be repressed for the sake of civilization; this necessarily results in individual unhappiness, but it is worth the trade-off. Freud has been out of fashion for some time, but he was onto something here. Clearly we all do have natural desires and instincts that are not all sweetness and light. They must be reined in, and young kids are in the process of learning their limits. Movie monsters are the fantasy sides of themselves that can just cut loose and trash Tokyo. They are cathartic. Some of us never entirely lose a penchant for such films, but we do want more sophistication in plot, theme, and dialogue as we grow older. We like the human characters to be more than cardboard cut-outs.

The very first monster movie I recall ever having seen was Godzilla. This would have been the 1956 recut for the American market. (I’ve since seen the 1954 original, and, yes, it is better.) I saw it in a drive-in from the backseat of my parents’ Pontiac. Not yet four at the time, I just barely remember it; I also remember seeing Moby Dick that same year at the same drive-in. The big lizard was fresh enough in my mind at age five for me to want to see it again when it turned up on TV. I was hooked on the genre at least since then, and soon was assembling and painting plastic models of Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and so on. I play-acted as all of them. I even grew to recognize which of the movies have merit as movies – and a fair number of them do.

So, it was with nostalgia that I went to see the re-booted 2014 Godzilla last night. I wanted to like it. Upshot? In a word, dreadful. And not in a good way. To be sure, the GGI work is truly impressive and the 3D urban destruction vast. Godzilla and the other monsters are visually well realized. But fx and devastation ceased being enough to carry a movie since I was ten, and the film is plainly aimed at an older audience – an older audience is certainly what it got anyway. With the exception of the obsessed widower, who dies before the main action, the characters barely rise to the level of cardboard – unlike, say, the humanly flawed and conflicted scientist in the original. I don’t know if the director and screenwriters intended any humor, but if they did (the MUTO monster’s disposition of the warhead?) it missed badly. The film’s misfire is made worse by a first half-hour that actually is promising. There is a nice ominous build-up. It is hard to argue with the premise that ultimately nature is bigger than we are. Historian Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” It’s too bad Durant (1885-1981) didn’t write the script. The last one and one-half hours consist of bare (and not especially logical) excuses for the monsters to smash things. When a film with production values this high fails to satisfy as much as one with an actor in a rubber suit kicking toy tanks, something has gone wrong.

If you want to see a spectacular smash-up of Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco by big beasties, this film provides it. Perhaps that’s enough if one is in the right mood. Astonishingly, a couple people in the audience did applaud at the end. (I’m pretty sure they weren’t applauding the end itself.) But I think I’ll pull Rodan (1956) from my DVD shelf and give it another spin. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more.

An oft-overlooked precursor to Godzilla, and also a childhood favorite

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Double Derby

Few of us share a box with Schrödinger’s cat and fewer of us particularly want to do so, so we sometimes must accept exclusionary conditions. When the schedules of the two Morristown-based women’s roller derby leagues conflict, my decision for one or the other is usually a simple one: go to the home game. Last night the away game of Morristown’s NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) against the GSR (Garden State Rollergirls) wasn’t so very far away, however, and it was a GSR double-header. Also, a number of the GSR skaters are familiar faces who formerly skated for Morristown. So at the cost of missing the home bout of the JDB (Jerzey Derby Brigade) in Morristown, I steered onto I-280 and accelerated toward North Arlington NJ.

First up were the GSR Ironbound Maidens vs. the Providence Roller Derby R.I. Riveters. The team’s proved well matched despite a distinct difference in blocking styles. The Riveters were more strategic, regularly forming three-walls and falling back to break the pack. The Maidens’ blockers were more individually (or sometimes doubly) aggressive against opposing jammers, with special mention to #10 Beaver even though this landed her in the penalty box a few times. The Maidens took an early lead with #625 Screaming Meme and #16 Yak Attack smartly adding points and calling the jams. At 10 minutes into the bout a superb multi-pass jam by Riveter #32 Shotz of Petrone closed the gap to one point, 26-25. At 20 minutes, #40 Milla Lowlife put the Riveters into the lead for the first time, 41-49. At half-time the score was 61-93 with Rhode Island in the lead.

In the second half, the Maidens eroded the Riveters advantage a few points per jam. A jam by Screaming Meme recovered the lead for the Maidens. Shotz took it back for the Riveters. For the final ten minutes, with both teams visibly tiring, Rhode Island successfully expanded its edge despite tough blocking by Maiden skaters. The R.I. Riveters took the win with a final score of 123 -161 – all in all an exciting bout between two fundamentally equivalent teams.

The second bout of the evening pitted the GSR Brick City Bruisers against the NJRD Risky B’s. The Risky B’s are the new team of the NJRD. Despite an impressive win last November against Red Bank (another team still building its strength), the Risky B’s are still very much in the process of acquiring experience and expertise. This time they were up against a strong opponent in the Bruisers. The opening jams were competitive with #5 Chase Windu and #556 Tiger Munition showing force and agility for Risky B’s. Soon, the Bruisers power began to show with #992 Ginger Ail and #394 Voldeloxx (both formerly of Morristown’s JDB) racking up points for a lead the Bruisers never would relinquish. #992 Anita Chainsaw and #206 Wendy Skulls also were effective for the Bruisers whether jamming or blocking. By halftime the score stood 167-30 in favor or the Bruisers. In the second half the Risky B’s redoubled their effort with some effect: #20 Ferocia Rose showed an ability to recover from a knockdown and still successful jam, at one point racking up points in a multiple pass, while #949 Dreadlock Ness Monster forced her way through Bruiser 4-walls. It wasn’t enough to overcome the Bruisers' experience advantage, but it was enough to break the 100 point mark, which is more than I’ve seen many teams do against less strong opponents. Voldeloxx added the final points of the bout for the Bruisers. Final score was 253-105 in favor of Brick City Bruisers.

The Risky B’s are still in a building phase, but they do show talent and promise. Special mention to Ferocia Rose who was Risky B’s MVP in her first ever bout.

I don’t suppose any teams will adopt these uniforms (about 2 minutes into the clip)

Monday, May 12, 2014

As Good as a Mile

I just closed the Ticketmaster site, and accordingly am somewhat poorer, but (one hopes) only financially. Another revival prompted me to pull out the credit card.

Back in 1998 I was looking for something to see off-Broadway with off-beat friends from out-of-town. A little production in Manhattan’s old meat-packing district (at that time largely dark at night) called Hedwig and the Angry Inch looked as though it might fit the bill.

Developed by and starring John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig was a rock-and-roll musical about a transgender East German musical performer who had her operation in order to emigrate to the West under her mother’s passport – a year before the Berlin Wall came down. In the US she finds love with a young man Tommy Gnossis whom she mentors. He leaves her and becomes a smashing success as an entertainer while she remains behind playing small clubs and fringe venues. Hedwig (Mitchell) narrates the events and opines in dialogue and song on love, identity, and making do with what one has – for, while Hedwig does envy Tommy’s success, at bottom she doesn’t begrudge it. She makes do with what she has.

I enjoyed the production which won a Village Voice Obie Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award. It did indeed rock. The movie version of Hedwig, with most of the original cast, was released in 2001. It doesn’t really work as a movie. What is missing is the audience. Catch it on stage and you’ll see what I mean.

In the past month Hedwig and the Angry Inch reopened in New York, this time on Broadway with the title role played by Neil Patrick Harris, a busy actor still best known for his TV roles in Doogie Hawser and How I Met Your Mother. I’m not sure how well the play translates to a big stage. Tickets are sold out until mid-June, so it will be more than a month before I can answer that first hand. The flashier venue and production values may undercut the central point that Hedwig is not successful in a conventional way, but that she’s OK with it.

Whether the original message gets through or not, it is one worth repeating. We are the sum of all our experiences: not just our successes but our misses, our errors, our losses, and our failures. They are tangled together in a way impossible to separate. You cannot have one part of the set without the rest. Are there things we would do differently with access to a time machine and “what I know now?” Of course. But (so far as I know) none of us has one of those, and that still supposes experiencing the bad stuff (and the just “not so great” stuff) on the first time loop. To be content with one’s life, one has to be willing to say, “I’d do it again, even at the cost of living through the bad parts again too.”

Trailer for Hedwig, the movie

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Me, Myself, and I, Robot

Six decades ago, John von Neumann in a conversation with fellow mathematician Stanisław Marcin Ulam commented that technology was leading toward “some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." Science fiction author Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of the singularity in the 1980s, marking its arrival at the moment when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence. When might this happen? Though some scientists dispute the whole concept, the majority view is sometime around 2040. Last week, Stephen Hawking in an article for The Independent warned of the risk: “If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We'll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here – we'll leave the lights on’? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI.
Is there really an upcoming risk of self-aware Terminator-type robots wreaking havoc on us weak biologicals? Some. Autonomous armed drones and weapons systems do exist already. But not much. The live people who give such machines their assignments are the ones about whom to worry. Machines are unlikely to take a fancy to the idea by themselves. The greater risk may be that AI machines make love, not war.
This notion might even be the older one. The gender war always has evoked fantasies in people of replacing flawed human lovers with manufactured perfect ones. We could reference Pygmalion, but let’s only go so far back as 1886, the year Auguste de Villiers published his science fiction novel L'Ève Future; in Villiers’ novel Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison) at his Menlo Park laboratory invents an android lover for his friend Lord Ewald. Robot lovers remain a staple of science fiction to this day. In his 2008 novel Saturn’s Children (and its 2013 sequel Neptune’s Brood), Charles Stross envisions a future in which biological humans have died out because they preferred their robots to each other to the point that they stopped reproducing; only the (lonely) robots remain. Lovebots abound in movies, too, as in Metropolis, Cherry 2000 or Making Mr. Right. Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence not only has sexbots (see Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law, in the clip below) but artificial children. No doubt robot kids would be a good deal less troublesome, and they could be programmed to be grateful.
The upscale love doll manufacturer True Companion already produces Roxxxy and Rocky, life-size dolls with “personalities.” That is to say they verbally respond to your words and touch in some preselected pattern. Roxxxy, the web site says, “is matched as much as possible to your personality. So she likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike, etc.” In case you have buyer’s remorse, however, there is more than one pattern.
 “In addition to her base personality, RoxxxyGold ships with these additional preprogrammed personalities:
Frigid Farrah – She is reserved and shy
Wild Wendy – She is outgoing and adventurous
S&M Susan – She is ready to provide your pain/pleasure fantasies
Young Yoko – She is oh so young (barely 18) and waiting for you to teach her
Mature Martha – She is very experienced and would like to teach you!”
Great, a robot with multiple personality disorder. These products are pricy but underwhelming toys without mobility or real AI, but they do point the way to the future. What is the biggest customer attraction of robotic amour? Robots are the ideal companions for a narcissistic era. They are really just an aid to autoeroticism, which, to steal a line from Woody Allen, “is sex with someone I love.”
So, Stross may be onto to something. To paraphrase TS Eliot., this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but … well, maybe we’d better leave that sentence unfinished.

Gigolo Joe’s scene in Spielberg’s AI

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Philly Blocks Morristown’s Party

In the most exciting home rink bout of the season to date, the Morristown-based NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) All Stars faced the visiting Philly Block Party last night. The Block Party is a powerful team that last year rolled over the top of the All Stars, defeating them 290-166. In October the Philadelphia team delivered Morristown’s other league, the Jerzey Derby Brigade, an even more convincing defeat of 349-101. This year the All Stars knew what they were up against, but hoped that a year of additional experience would enable them to pull off an upset.

The opening jams indicated those hopes were well placed. Maulin Rouge scored 3 points for Morristown on the first jam and Miss USAHole added to them despite being knocked down by Block Party blockers. Philly’s Quazi Mojo scored in the 4th jam but All Star Shannani-Gunz scored on the 5th. Penalties and power jams favored Morristown throughout the first half. Philly blocking was aggressive and strong, but the NJRD proved tactically adept, creating no-pack situations to help their jammers through while cooperatively blocking opponents. Philly was able to accumulate points, with jammers ZZ Top Heavy, Goldy, and Quazi Mojo especially prominent, but the NJRD maintained an edge, At half-time the score stood 89-50 in favor of Morristown.

The Block Party has a history of comebacks in the second half, and when the whistle blew they strove to make history repeat. They were aided in this regard by a greater depth of skaters than the NJRD, allowing them to rotate fresh (or refreshed) skaters onto the track. Philly began to chip away at the NJRD lead though the team suffered a setback when Goldy, one of Philly’s big gun jammers, went down hard and was out of the game while EMTs checked her for concussion. Both teams added points against stiff blocking. Philly's break came when Goldy – OK and back on the track – picked up 28 points in a single power jam, closing the gap to 11 points. Holden Killfield, jamming for Philly, then added 7; she took her team over the top in her next jam, giving Philly a 5 point lead. Shannani-Gunz and Miss USAHole took back the lead for the All Stars.  Morristown was ahead 121-119 with 8 minutes remaining in the bout. The lead teetered back and forth with Morristown ahead by 1 point at 3 minutes. Goldy and Holden Killfield recaptured and then solidified a lead in the final jams, giving the Philly Block Party the win 140-130.

If there is any good news for the All Stars in this, it is that the issue was in doubt to the final minute – a very different type of bout from the one last year.

For Philly – Damage Doll as blocker, Holden Killfield as jammer
For NJRD – Pixie Bust as blocker, Maulin Rouge as jammer

 Marilyn might have been happier as a derby girl

Friday, May 2, 2014

Short Stuff

The short story peaked as an influential art form in the 150 years between 1820 and 1970: Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Cather, Hemingway, Bradbury, Ellison, and endless others. What killed it off? Television, I suppose, with the internet and video games adding nails to the coffin. When wishing to escape into another world for a brief time (as we so often want to do), we find it easier to reach for the remote. By “killed off” I don’t mean that short stories no longer are written. I mean they no longer have the prominent place in the marketplace and culture that they once did. Only a handful of pulp fiction magazines remain in existence. Upscale magazines with literary pretensions (e.g. The New Yorker) are few and almost entirely the domain of well-established authors. Most new short stories today by unknown or lesser known authors are found only on their own obscure web pages. I have 50 posted at Richard’s Mirror

It still is rewarding occasionally though to put down that remote and crack open a book. (“Crack open” a Kindle doesn’t sound quite right.) On some of those occasions collections of short fiction fit our time requirements perfectly. Besides, as commented Sigrid Ellis at Apex Publications, “Short fiction is important, in part, because we can meet and learn from unpleasant people without lingering too long in their company.” So too. There is one genre of short story collection that weighed especially heavily in my youthful reading and which has not vanished from my shelves to this day. I grew up on Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Schmitz, et al. It helped that these and other SF writers of the 1950s and 1960s really were giants in the field. If there are any doubts about this, I recommend the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova. Ostensibly two-volume, but really three (“Volume 2” comes as IIa and IIb), all the stories and novellas contained in the set predate 1964, and all are superb.

There are excellent SF authors at work today as well, of course, even as the print market for their work has dwindled. (The internet being what it is, it is not a terribly onerous burden to find them.) I have my favorites but I rely on anthologies for exposure to a broader selection of authors. Collections of Nebula and Hugo Award nominees are useful. At the moment The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, which arrived a couple weeks ago from Amazon, lies open on my desk; it is as chronologically diverse as Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844) and Chiang’s Exhalation (2008).

Why does SF still appeal decades after my first (some might say “age-appropriate”) introduction to it? Emily Coon comments in Ploughshares Literary Magazine, “Science fiction has nourished work from the misfits, the beautiful weirdos, and the marginalized of many stripes.” She meant it as a compliment, and indeed it is. It is well to keep in mind that those misfits include the like of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, and JG Ballard. SF introduces us to new ideas and perspectives in ways difficult or impossible to achieve in other literary formats. Said Robert Heinlein (defensively?), “For the survival and health of the human race one crudely written science fiction story containing a single worthwhile new idea is more valuable than a bookcaseful of beautifully written non-science fiction.” Well, I don’t want to endanger the survival and health of the human race, so I’ll do my bit by continuing to dedicate at least some of my shelf space to SF.

A widely forgotten flick from 1969 based a Ray Bradbury short story collection