Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Alternatives for the Morning-After Couch

Not really into football? Then you might need some other diversions on New Year’s Day while recovering from the festivities of the night before. Two possibilities are below, both from my read/view list last week.

**** ****

The Hike by Drew Magary (copyright 2016)

Surrealistic novels seldom work for me. When they do – Angela Carter’s scifi novels, for instance – it’s because they are anchored by having something real to say, even it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. It’s not surrealism for its own sake. Drew Magary’s very readable The Hike works. Not all the metaphors in it are easy to articulate. Don’t try. It’s enough to feel them there.

Ben is a 38-year-old businessman with a wife and three kids in suburban Maryland. He travels a lot to conferences and to meet with vendors. We meet him on one of these trips. He checks into a rather rundown hotel in the woodsy Poconos. He decides to hike for a little ways on a wood trail in back of the hotel. He witnesses a brutal crime. The killers also see him, and in his efforts to escape them finds himself on a path that even Alice would find bizarre. She, after all, didn’t turn into a crab, which Ben does at one point. Along the path are a monstrous cricket, a giant woman, and a winged creature with smoky minions. The only reward offered to Ben for surviving years on the path – if he does – is to return to his wife and kids.

A lot of us feel like giving up, as Ben often does, on life’s road, but most of us persist anyway. For all the weirdness, the character and story are relatable.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Len and Company (2015)

This is the sort of indie film that is quietly satisfying in a way that no blockbuster ever can be.

Rhys Ifans is perfectly cast as Len Black, an aging former punk rocker who found financial success as a music producer even though his personality seems unsuited for the business side of music. Much of his success came from shepherding the career of pop singer Zoe from age 16 onward, despite her sound being miles distant from his own tastes. Zoe is played by Juno Temple, who nails the part and has as much insight to the characters as anyone could have; Juno’s father, Julien Temple, did his early directorial work with the Sex Pistols.

Len is having a late middle-age “does any of this mean anything at all?” crisis. He wants nothing more than to be left to his own cranky self-absorbed self on his decaying estate in Upstate New York while he watches DVDs and ruminates. He doesn’t get his wish. He gets a surprise visit from his son Max, who wants Len to hear a demo tape by his own band but is unsure how to approach Len in his currently massively indifferent mood. The hesitation is not unwarranted; when Max does finally broach the subject Len derides him for a privileged upbringing that Len himself (unasked) provided, which, he claims, is sure to make his son’s music shallow. Zoe also shows up at the house partly out of concern for Len and partly for answers about why he embarrassed her by walking off an awards show. He is not any more responsive to her than to Max. Len knows he is a being jerk, but at the moment he doesn’t feel like being anything else.

The movie is not about the action but about the characters and how they choose to play the cards life dealt them. It also reflects the often mutually uncomprehending interaction of Boomers and Millennials. The characters do evolve a little by the end but don’t become entirely new people – few of us do in the course of only a few days. A little, though, is sometimes enough.

This is simply a well-written and well-acted little drama, though not for anyone looking for car chases and fight scenes. Thumbs Up.

Monday, December 26, 2016

As 2016 Wheezes Its Last Breaths

Putting aside the larger issues and allowing myself a moment of solipsism (to accompany all those other moments), the biggest lesson to me of 2016 was to take nothing for granted. I’ve learned that before but have a habit of forgetting it. Perhaps it will last a little longer this time than will my New Year’s Resolutions, whatever those might be (I haven’t decided yet).

My prognostications this year were as faulty as those of most folks. An old college buddy (Hi, Don) and lifelong bachelor is originally from Chicago so naturally he is a Cubs fan. Just before the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years I sent him an e-mail:

“My 6 impossible things to believe before breakfast:

The Cubs win the World Series
Trump wins the election
Amanda Seyfried falls in love with my Facebook profile
My property taxes go down
ISIS surrenders
You get married”

With only a few days left in the year I have yet to hear from Amanda, but at this point I’m reluctant to rule it out. I also should start planning Donald’s Bachelor Party.

I won’t dread or anticipate anything in 2017 because you never know. Well, sometimes you do, but we’ll leave six inevitable things for another blog.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Party Like It’s 1959

I was reading a collection of Dave Barry essays earlier today: Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster). Dave rarely says anything I find inherently surprising, but he says what he says far better and amusingly than I ever could. On this occasion, however, he truly caught me off guard. A fellow Boomer, he comments that our parents – those hardworking Greatest Generation folks – were happier and more fun-loving than we are. He was prompted to say this by an episode of Mad Men (Season 1 takes place in 1960 during our mutual childhood) in which the characters, for all their carousing, don’t seem to have fun: “Unlike the Mad Men characters, the grown-ups back then had fun. A lot of fun.”

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but he is right. The kid’s perspective with which I’m still inclined to think of my parents had blinded me to it, but he is very right. True, they didn’t have the blow-out wild teens and 20s that Boomers had as (mostly) singles in the prosperous freewheeling era that the Greatest Generation had created. They didn’t have the time, money, or opportunity for that. (I’m generalizing, of course, but for the bulk of the generation the generalization is accurate.) They were too occupied by the Depression, World War 2, career-building, and early marriage with kids. They were nose-to-the-grindstone during working hours, yet they still managed to play hard as adults on top of all that. Nor did they scale back in their 30s and 40s as Boomers did. I recall an endless parade of babysitters as a young kid because every weekend one of my parents’ friends (and they had many) was throwing a house party. They dressed up for them, too, in sports jackets and cocktail dresses. Of course, the party-giving cycled around to our house every so often, and I tried to spy surreptitiously when I could. People chain-smoked, loudly cracked off-color jokes, and drank astonishing amounts of alcohol while playing records, dancing, and playing actual games such as charades. I remember limbo parties in the early ‘60s. When there wasn’t a party to attend it was probably because we were off camping or at the beach or some such place.

I’m nowhere near as ambitious with my playtime any more than with my worktime. I do host some houseparties, but never more than a half dozen per year (usually fewer) of any size including summer BBQs, while I attend perhaps one or two by other people. They are far tamer than those of my parents, and a clean shirt counts as “dressed up.” (I do see friends more often than that, but two or three people do not constitute a party; I go out to random clubs and concerts more often than did my parents, but if you count social organization get-togethers such as the Rotary, they went out more.) I don’t think we’ve ever played charades at any of my parties and it’s been five years since anyone danced at one – and that involved a video game. I’m also much less quick to just hop in the car for a vacation trip than were my parents even though I’m single with no kids, so the logistics are far simpler. Nearly all my friends are the same way: not hermits but decades past being party animals. Millennials are actually more restrained in their behavior than Boomers (or Xers) were at their age; we’ll have to wait and see whether they make up for it later in life or if they still prove to be even lamer than we are.

Our parents knew what the Big Stuff was and why it mattered. They spent their lives facing it. So, they didn’t sweat the Small Stuff, which included such trifles as second hand smoke and seat belts. They knew life is hard, but they had fun while they could without letting that fun interfere with the Big Stuff. They were a flawed generation, as every generation is in its own way. Social attitudes were commonplace then that are cringeworthy today. Yet, there were many many ways in which they simply did it better, and now that I think about it they played better too. It’s probably too late to try to emulate them in that way, but maybe I should break out the limbo pole for the next party. Or maybe not. If I go under it I might never unbend again.

Party scene from The Apartment (1960)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Empathy with a Razor

Two quick reviews of two of last week’s reads:

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Yale professor Paul Bloom begins by defining his terms. Many people use the word “empathy” broadly to mean being kind and generous. He uses it in the narrower sense used by psychologists to mean (to quote Bill Clinton) “I feel your pain.” This is not the same as sympathy, for we can feel for someone without feeling with them. Psychologists also distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The latter is an intellectual understanding of what another person is feeling without feeling it oneself. Bloom doesn’t have a problem with cognitive empathy per se, though he notes that it is morally neutral. It is not true, for example that psychopaths lack empathy. On the contrary, they often have exceptional cognitive empathy. They know what you are feeling: that’s how they manipulate you and exercise their cruelty. They just don’t care. They lack emotional empathy. Yet even if they had this, it’s not clear they would have sympathy and compassion, which are more important. After all, folks with Asperger’s also have limitations on emotional empathy, yet they are not any more likely than anyone else to be cruel intentionally.

So what is Bloom’s beef with emotional empathy? He thinks it is just fine for enjoying literature or a movie, but that it is a terrible basis for morality: “It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.” We tend to empathize with whomever is in front of us, whether, as examples, it is a victim of a crime or a youthful perpetrator with a troubled past. Bloom suggests what the world needs is not more empathy but more rational compassion: step back and look at the big picture.

Bloom’s book is not just an extended opinion-piece. He brings in neuroscience and various social studies. Some of what he says might seem obvious, but I’ll give him credit for a contrarian title.

Thumbs very mildly Up.

**** ****

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Despite the everglades, the abundance of beaches, and the artificial landscapes of Disney World, Florida does not rank high on the list of visually interesting US states. Socially, however, it is in the top tier for weirdness, colorfulness, and diversity. This weirdness has attracted the attention of numerous authors both homegrown (e.g. Jeff Lindsay of the Dexter novels) and visiting (e.g. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood). One of the most prolific native writers is Carl Hiaasen. Carl probably is still best known for Strip Tease, thanks to the Demi Moore movie based on the book in the 90s, but he has published a new book every two or three years since the early 80s. His latest novel, released earlier this year, is Razor Girl.

In an odd way Hiaasen reminds me of Jim Thompson, whose gritty noir-ish novels so perfectly captured the flavor of low-life America in the 1950s. Hiaasen is just as on-point although, his setting being contemporary Florida, his lowlifes sometimes have money. His imagery is at one and the same time gaudier and tawdrier than anything in Thompson.

This one is set primarily in the Florida Keys. The complex plot defies brief summary, but it involves con artists, a redneck star of a TV reality show, the star’s agent, murder, an unscrupulous sand replenishment contractor, organized crime goons, and a cantankerous ex-cop turned health inspector named Yancy. The eponymous Razor Girl arranges car accidents, usually as an insurance scam but in this case to facilitate a kidnapping. All the different characters and subplots emerge and interlace easily, and Hiaasen presents it all with dry humor.

Razor Girl is not high-lit, nor does it try to be. It is literary snack food. But it’s tasty snack food. As a recreational read, Thumbs Up.

Muddy Waters - Deep Down in Florida

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Little Knowledge…

We all have incomplete educations. Moreover, what we have often dissipates over time as is amply demonstrated on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, an enjoyable TV game show on which successful adult professionals (some of them academics) repeatedly reveal they are not. All questions on the show come from 5th grade textbooks. Yet, since 2007 only two contestants, including Nobel winning physicist George Smoot, have won the million dollar prize. Our failings run the gamut from Accounting to Zoology. Earlier this autumn Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson badly damaged his campaign by flubbing a question on Aleppo, but he has plenty of geographically-challenged company. In a country in which a majority of people receive at least some higher education beyond high school, most Americans nonetheless cannot even find Syria on a map. (They can’t find Afghanistan either, even though American troops have been fighting and dying there for 15 years.) Back in 2013 Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein argued in all seriousness that this doesn’t matter so long as they can Google the answer: “In this era of labeled maps, Google Earth, and, well, Google, the question isn't whether you can find Syria on a map. It's whether you can find useful information about Syria in your browser.”

I can’t state emphatically enough how much I disagree – not just about Syria in particular but about the whole notion that an internet connection is a substitute for knowledge. It is not. Nor is it a substitute for skill. It is not unimportant to be able to add or spell just because one’s laptop has a calculator and autocorrect. Knowing how and when to look up additional information is all very fine, but creativity and thoughtful analysis depend on the ability to make connections among disparate bits of knowledge in one’s own head. That doesn’t work if the bits aren’t there. If we let a machine think for us, any kudos for the result belong entirely to the machine.

That said, I’m acutely aware of the huge gaps that exist in my own education. One way to fill in enough gaps at least to fake it at a dinner party with truly well-informed people is to read cover to cover An Incomplete Education: 3684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t (Third Edition) by Judy Jones and William Wilson. This certainly is a goal of mine, so last week I read the book. What’s your weakness? Art history? Anthropology? Poetry? Psychology? Philosophy? How about the names of the various types of carriages or the details of pre-decimal British currency? An amazing amount of information (yes, including about Syria) is in this 700 page compendium. It’s no substitute for in-depth studies, of course, but it will get one through that dinner party without sounding like a dullard. It also gives the reader a framework for more self-education if he or she is so inclined. Besides, who knows what new thoughts will come from all those new bits of info inside one’s own head? We’ll have to see if any pop into my own.

Thumbs up.

Sam Cooke. (I considered Know Nothing by Travis, but video embedding for the song is disabled by request of the rights-holders.)

Monday, November 28, 2016


In 1976 journalist Gail Sheehy authored a book called Passages that continues to sell well today. In it she described each of the several decade-long stages of adult life along with the associated characteristic crises, challenges, and responses. Her observations have merit, but if, instead of our decimal number system, we used base 8 or base 12, I suspect we would divide our lives into 8- or 12-year stages instead. This suspicion is reinforced by a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that notes the importance of ages ending in 9. At 29, 39, 49, and so on, we are more likely to cheat on partners, take up a new sport, open a new business, get engaged, or commit suicide than in other years. Birthdays of _9 years hit us harder than others. The prospect of a new decade and the imminent expiration of the current one make us think about what we have, what we missed, and what we still have time to do.

Age-awareness is not just a personal psychological matter. There are real world consequences to age. There is a difference between 29 and 30 or between 49 and 50 on online dating sites and (however much employers deny it) with job availability. Cut-off dates, overtly stated or not, are built into much of life.

1976: My sister looks happier about 
my birthday than I do
Since today is my birthday (which prompted this blog) I can attest that at least one year ending in 4 also is portentous, though that owes much to an arbitrary rule of the US entitlement system. I can’t say the 9s, though, ever did much for me – or to me. Perhaps it is just denial, but it always has taken a few years into a new age-decade for me to think of myself as being in it. After few years delay, however, the stereotypical reactions finally do set in – for example the classic 40s worry, “If I don’t do this now [marry, divorce, adopt, learn to play an instrument, or whatever] I never will.” Those thoughts can lead to some very rash decisions. I know they did in my case.

Nonetheless, in any year there is something satisfying about a holiday that is all about oneself – and the other 1/365ths of the population who share it. True, I no longer expect to unwrap boxes with toys inside, but I’ve learned to appreciate the present of just being here for one more change of digits. For that reason (plus Thanksgiving, on which my birthday sometimes falls) November is my favorite month. I’m fond of the number 28 too, though not enough to use in a PIN.

Devil Doll: Queen of Pain, posted below for no other reason than containing the lyric, “But now it's the month of November: your favorite time of year.”

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Next Day

On this day after Thanksgiving the turkey coma has lifted but, reinforced by leftovers for lunch, a turkey high lingers. The precise historical details of this particular holiday are not important, as much as they, like everything else, are politicized. (The 1993 movie Addams Family Values addresses this with dark humor about as well as any.) In truth it is just a seasonal harvest feast given a thin origin myth – and not a very good one. That’s fine. Any excuse is fine, for a desire for ritualized feasting might be embedded in our very nature.

Hunter-gatherer groups throw big get-togethers for various tribes, clans, and bands – some of them from far distances. It’s a good way for exogamous peoples to find spouses, to learn about their neighbors, and just to have a great party. Since no party is complete without an excess of food and drink, it is entirely possible that agriculture started as a way to host parties. Archaeologists Neil Canuel, Jennifer Shanse, and Brian Hayden argued exactly this in their 2013 paper “What Was Brewing in the Naftuian?” A better diet for less work can be had by hunting and gathering than by farming, so it always has been something of a mystery why agriculture began 10,000 years ago. One thing agriculture offers is an abundance of cereals for brewing beer: the missing ingredient for boozy feasts. A secondary effect is a surplus of calories that can feed an urban population: it makes civilization possible. So, whatever the origin myth of any particular seasonal celebration, the feast connects us in deep way to our past and to the beginnings of modern life. Every culture ever since has come up with excuses to have one. Besides, who doesn’t like a drumstick washed down with Riesling?

Sixteen of the usual suspects (a few family, but mostly not) showed up at my place yesterday and dutifully made gluttons of ourselves. It was grand fun but I’m hiding the bathroom scale until January 2.

Somehow I don’t think the NASA meals would have enthused all of my guests

Friday, November 18, 2016

“Foul words is but foul wind”

Back in the 1980s, before browsers and WorldWideWeb pages, the early internet users communicated on Usenet groups. Usenet is still an option. It is preferred by some for the same reason that many internet providers currently block access to it; by its very nature it offers a greater level of anonymity with the attendant advantages for both legitimate and criminal purposes. Users in the ‘80s were relatively few, and therefore social pressure was a real force for collegiality and congeniality. Rude people found themselves pounced upon or excluded until they learned to play by the rules. They soon did. A challenge arose every September as a new wave of college freshman, many of them operating computers for the very first time, posted in the crude offensive mean-spirited fashion one expects of college freshmen. By and large, however, they were educated in netiquette in a month or two. This was similar to the “small town effect” that keeps folks polite and honest in small communities. As Amy Alkon points out in her book I See Rude People, you can’t very well rob the local liquor store if the owner knows your mother. As populations grow larger and anonymity becomes the norm, however, social pressures lose much of their force: there is no penalty for being a boorish jackass.

A cultural change came to the internet in 1993 when pioneering providers of access to the Web such as AOL and Prodigy welcomed a rising flood of new users. The new users were far too numerous to moderate by social pressure alone, and belligerency quickly became widespread. Veteran users refer to this as the onset of the Eternal September. There is no sign yet of September ever ending. This past election year gave us some particularly dark September days as professional propagandists exploited the readiness of internet users (of any political stripe) to share pre-packaged insults and slanders of the opposition. Especially popular are the memes showing some nutcase member of the opposition behaving like an ass (there never is a shortage of such people), thereby implying that everyone in opposition is the same. But politics is just one small aspect of online loutishness.

Why do we behave that way online? (That’s the editorial “we,” of course, which might or might not include you and me.) For the same reason we do it elsewhere. All primates are hardwired to be cocky posturing trash-talkers. When chimpanzees or baboons do it we call it displaying, but it is the same thing. It makes evolutionary sense: the genes of high-ranking primates get transmitted and survive more often. Achieving a high rank means taking down your individual rivals a notch and forming alliances against rival groups. Most real-world displays, whether among humans or nonhumans, do not lead to violence. They cause the less confident rival to back down. If neither backs down there is still (overall) a 50/50 chance of winning a fight, so the numbers favor pushing your luck. Humans need social cohesion, too, of course, so social pressures also evolved within bands to keep this sort of competition within bounds. They didn’t evolve to deal with the internet, however. We can’t rely on our instincts to behave with proper netiquette.

Fortunately, we have other tools than instinct. After all, our intellect allows us to develop and believe in the most amazing philosophies that run counter to every instinct we have. At least some of that capacity can be directed toward living in an online world with trolls – mostly by ignoring them. Their words have only the power we give them. Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

An occasional vacation from virtual space back into meatspace is warranted too. This Thursday a motley assortment of the usual suspects will be at my Thanksgiving table. They range in age from teens to seniors and span the political spectrum. Being face-to-face in a non-anonymous environment, I expect little trash talk, except perhaps about the Brussels sprouts.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

November 12 Recap: Corporal Punishers vs. Brandywine Roller Girls

The final bout of the season for the hometown Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade was a see-saw nail-biter that wasn’t decided until the last jam. Brandywine scored the first points and built up a 20 point lead in the first few minutes. An effective power jam by #12 Evil Beauty seemed to put Brandywine on course for a comfortable victory. But jams by #3684 CaliforniKate and #235 A Bomb gave the Corporal Punishers a one-point 44-43 lead. #1945 Bomb Schell took a 2-point lead back for Brandywine. Both sides put up strong blocking walls, and it was clear that neither team was going to have an easy time of it. At halftime Brandywine had a 19-point lead, but this time it seemed anything but secure.

For most of the second half Brandywine held onto its lead, but with 11 minutes remaining in the bout CaliforniKate tied up the score 152-152. In the next jam against stiff blocking #8 Li’l MO Peep pushed the Corporal Punishers into the lead. Evil Beauty took it back for Brandywine 164-165 and A Bomb reversed it again 167-165. With a minute remaining, a Corporal Punisher lead 185-170 brought victory within sight, but an exciting and superb jam by Evil Beauty in the very last jam of the night added 22 points.

Brandywine took the win with a final score 185 – 192.

MVPs: 1776 Merica (blocker) and #12 Evil Beauty (jammer) for Brandywine; #93 Freudian Slap (blocker) and #3684 CaliforniKate (jammer) for the Corporal Punishers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Something Old Something New

There was no outcome of the election that could have made me happy. So, with only enough peeks at the news to keep apprised of events, I diverted myself through much of the evening with two spins in my trusty DVD player.
**** ****

As You Like It (1936)
My choice to watch this film was prompted by the Asimov guide to Shakespeare, which I reviewed a few blogs ago.

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s airier comedies, most remembered for the “All the world’s a stage” speech. The plot is convoluted, which is why (re)reading the play or consulting a guide like Asimov’s is recommended, especially before viewing this particular production of it. The ‘36 version is notable for starring a young Laurence Olivier as Orlando and Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner as Rosalind, though Bergner’s Viennese lilt is not an asset here.

The rightful duke has been overthrown by his evil brother and now inhabits the forest of Arden with his merry men. The rightful duke's daughter, Rosalind, is still back at the castle and retains the friendship of her cousin, the usurper’s daughter Celia. Rosalind meets and falls for Orlando, who has brother issues of his own. Orlando joins up with the rightful duke in the forest. Rosalind, fearing the usurper, disguises herself as a man and also heads off to the forest with Celia acting as her servant. The disguised Rosalind goes by the name Ganymede (Jupiter’s boy toy in classical mythology). There is much homosexual playfulness when “Ganymede,” unrecognized by Orlando, convinces Orlando to practice wooing Rosalind by pretending “he” is Rosalind. As another complication, a shepherdess named Phebe falls in love with Ganymede. There are other subplots involving rustics, lovers, brothers, and fools.

Crossdressing characters require a delicate balance to achieve comic effect, at least on film. (We are more forgiving of stage performances for a variety of reasons.) They have to be credible enough plausibly to fool the other characters, but not so credible that the audience itself doesn’t recognize them. There is a story, which may or may not be true, that Tony Randall didn’t get the part that went to Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot because he was too convincing as Daphne; even a smidgeon less convincing than either Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon wouldn’t have worked either, however. In the ’36 As You Like It, Elisabeth Bergner isn’t remotely plausible as a man. She never looks like anything other than a very beautiful woman in a tunic, and the slightly lower pitch she gives her voice is still feminine: nowhere near as deep as, say, Marlene Dietrich. This undermines the intended nature of the wooing scenes with Orlando and gives the scene with Phebe an entirely different flavor.

I can’t complain about the writing, of course. As in most film versions of Will’s plays, there are cuts, but nothing crucial. Olivier is fine as Orlando. The sets, locations, and camerawork are good. Yet I can’t quite give this version a recommendation. Too many casting, staging, directing, and acting decisions are misguided and distracting. A reluctant Thumbs Down.
**** ****

Nerve (2016)
It’s long been known that actively discouraging bad behavior works only up to a certain point. After that it is counterproductive. In the US, Prohibition was a particularly disastrous example. A few years ago a study by Jessup and Wade at the University of Sussex concluded that people drink more after seeing ads that warn them of the dangers of drinking. The obsession with political correctness among youth has led to popularity of games such as Cards Against Humanity in which being outrageously offensive is the whole point.  In recent decades most kids in first world countries have grown up absurdly overprotected: helmeted, padded, and supervised to the extreme. It is no surprise then that, in response, extreme sports are all the rage – also, the extreme selfie. Every now and then a fatality makes the news when someone tries to take a selfie on a cliff, or on a subway track, or in a lion’s enclosure, or some such place, and it doesn’t end well.

In Nerve, Vee (Emma Roberts) is a high school senior introduced to the game Nerve. Nerve is a kind of online Truth or Dare accessible on a smart phone. The game has “watchers” and “players”; the watchers challenge the players to do embarrassing or hazardous things – including extreme selfies – in exchange for money. The stunt must be captured by phone. The cash rewards can be a few dollars for a mild prank or a huge jackpot for something truly insane. Vee is seduced by the early rewards but the challenges grow increasingly sinister. The one rule to the game, however, is never to go to the police; it is a rule that is enforced.

There are major flaws in this movie. For one thing, none of the characters is very likable and they endanger more people than just themselves, so it is easier to be annoyed at them than to fear for them. For another, the ending is contrived to put it gently. Nonetheless, the premise is clever enough, and the danger builds as it should.

This was a very close call, but I’ll give the film an ever-so-slight Thumbs Up. That may seem odd after the Thumbs Down above, but I hold Shakespeare to a higher standard.

An earlier heyday of extreme sports

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Dawn of the Dread

What’s the scariest thing about Halloween? It’s that the following day is November 1, due date for the dreaded 4th-quarter real estate taxes. Taxes are no fun anywhere and never have been: a Sumerian proverb inscribed on a clay tablet dated c. 2400 BCE reads, “You can have a landlord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax-collector.” Indeed. The advantage of property taxes over other kinds to the powers-that-be is that the owner can’t pretend the land doesn’t exist; it can’t be hidden away as gold nuggets can be. And if he doesn’t pay up, the property can be located, seized, and sold. Easy-peasy
Sumerian tax receipt

November 1 is particularly scary in New Jersey, since NJ has the distinction of the highest property taxes of any state in the nation. Despite a 23-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax that also went into effect this month, our gas tax is still only the 6th highest, but for real estate we’re #1. Back in 2011 the state legislature put a 2% annual cap on local property tax increases but left escape clauses. An obvious one is revaluation: in Prospect Park last year, for example, the tax rate went down but the tax levy rose 5.2% anyway due to revaluation. Also, towns and counties can exceed the 2% limit to meet certain types of commitments. This year 60% of towns and counties exceeded the nominal cap.

I sometimes hear homeowners (especially those who pay taxes through a mortgage holder, and so don’t examine the tax bills closely) tell me, “My taxes went down for 2017.” No they didn’t. That impression is an artifact of the way taxes are calculated. A tax bill shows the last two quarters of the current year and the first two quarters of next year. The amount owed for each of the first two quarters of next year is based on an average of all four quarters of the current year – this average is always lower than the last two quarters of the current year. When a 2017 budget is passed (almost certainly higher than the 2016 budget) the extra cost will show up in the 3rd and 4th quarters of the 2017/2018 bill. If you compare the first two quarters of 2016 (by digging out last year’s bill) to the first two quarters of 2017, 2017 will be higher.

The good news, if one can call it that, is that it is fully three months to the next quarterly payment. The other good news is that this particularly nightmarish election season will be over on November 8 – good only in the sense of “over.”

Then there are Thanksgiving and November birthdays, including my own. I can eat away my grumpiness with turkey and cake. Hmm… I’m already feeling better.

The Kinks: “The tax man's taken all my dough... All I've got's this sunny afternoon

Friday, October 28, 2016

Two by Two

Reviews of two flicks and two books:

Café Society (2016)
To say that Café Society has the flavor one expects from a Woody Allen movie is enough to let most readers know whether or not they will like it. The minority who lean one way as often as the other, however, probably will lean toward this one. It is not one of his home runs, but it is a solid base hit. Much of the credit belongs to the actors Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. (The two had worked together before on the non-Woody dark action comedy American Ultra.) Not all Woody’s screen alter egos fit the role well, but Jesse wears it comfortably; Kristen Stewart is so appealing that we finally can forgive her for Twilight. Also, as a period piece Café Society is a good-looking film.

Basic plot (with a few *spoilers*): In the 1930s Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), son of an NYC jeweler, moves to Hollywood and gets a job running errands for his Uncle Phil, played by a surprisingly well-cast Steve Carrell. Phil is an agent with major film industry clout. Bobby becomes enamored of Uncle Phil’s secretary Veronica, aka “Vonnie” (Kristen Stewart), unaware she is Phil’s mistress. Vonnie returns affection but her heart belongs primarily to Phil. Bobby decides to move back to New York and manage a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben. Bobby becomes successful and marries another Veronica (Blake Lively). Bobby and Vonnie cross paths again when Phil and Vonnie, now married, show up in New York on business.

Many film reviewers have commented on a deep cynicism regarding romantic love that pervades movies made since the start of the new millennium. Something outlandish has to be introduced in order to sell the idea to a skeptical audience: he’s a vampire, she’s an alien princess, he’s a werewolf, one or the other is a time traveler, or (as in Silver Linings Playbook) they’re both crazy. “Ah, that accounts for it.” Even Disney is on board. The movie Maleficent never questions the contention that true love in the romantic sense doesn’t exist: Prince Philip fails miserably to wake Sleeping Beauty. Whatever the cause of this cynical audience mood and however commercially wise it may be to cater to it on screen, the underlying contention is in fact wrong. Love doesn’t often turn out well, but that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.  Of course it exists: people will ruin their lives over it – I surely damaged a good part of mine. Percy Sledge had a 50 year career singing the same song because we know what he meant. Woody knows the cynicism is wrong, too, and isn’t reluctant to say so in his movies, but he also knows the likely outcome: “Unrequited love kills more people in the year than tuberculosis.” Even if it is requited, the odds are big that there will be other reasons why things won’t work out. (That things generally don’t work out is a separate point entirely: recognition of this is not cynicism but observation and experience.) So, Woody’s movies, including Café Society, tend to be bittersweet – thoughtful, too. As one character remarks, “Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' But the examined one is no bargain.”

Thumbs Up, but if you usually don’t like Woody, this one won’t change your mind.

**** ****

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare
By Isaac Asimov – 1970
As mentioned a few blogs ago, I occasionally pluck a book at random from my home library for a re-read. This one is proving especially pleasurable the second time around. (I’m still in the midst of it.)

Though best known as a science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a polymath, a professor of biochemistry, and an author of more than 500 books. Besides his fiction, he wrote nonfiction on almost every imaginable subject. Few people were better at elucidating complex ideas for a popular readership. This 800 page guide to the plays of Shakespeare is both accessible and erudite. Let’s face it, William can be a bit daunting for modern audiences and most of the volumes of academic treatises written in professor-ese on his work only make matters worse. But Shakespeare wrote some pretty good stuff, and with a proper non-pedantic overview he can be great fun.

Asimov in his introduction comments on several of the advantages that native speakers of English have, largely due to the accidents of history. He then adds, “But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived – in any language.” Hyperbole? Maybe, but Asimov’s enthusiasm serves him and us well.

Highly recommended. In particular, if you are going to catch a performance of one of Will’s plays, first reading Asimov’s relevant chapter on the play is sure to enhance enjoyment.

Thumbs way Up.

**** ****

The Revenant (2015)
This is about as far away from a Woody Allen movie as it is possible to get: wilderness, survival, revenge, and brutish manly men in a harsh environment. 156 minutes of it.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the film is based on a real event in 1823. Fur trappers in the Rockies have a problem when one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is badly mauled by a grizzly and is unable to travel. While the others go ahead, three of the team – Fitzgerald, Jim, and Glass’ half-Pawnee son Hawk – stay behind with instructions to wait until Glass either dies or can travel. Fitzgerald kills Hawk and convinces Jim to leave Glass for dead. Considering how badly Glass is mangled and how unforgiving the mountain winter is, his death seems surely imminent. Instead, motivated by revenge, Glass somehow survives and struggles to find his way out of the mountains and back to the trading post. The handful of people with whom he crosses paths along the way are as dangerous as the bear.

The Revenant is beautifully filmed amid spectacular scenery. The bear attack – though computer generated fx – is utterly convincing.

This is not the type of movie I commonly pick – and in fact I didn’t pick this one. It was the majority preference at a get-together. Yet, I have to give it a Thumbs Up simply for the quality of the filmmaking. As survival tales go, this is certainly well done.

**** ****

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
By Benjamin K. Bergen -- 2016
For words and phrases that make up such a substantial proportion of everyday speech, remarkably few academic studies of profanity exist. Bergen endeavors to make up for that. He employs the modern usage of the word “profanity,” ditching the old distinction between blasphemy and mere vulgarity. The taboo words that constitute profanity come in four types: 1) blasphemy, 2) references to sex, 3) references to excretory functions, and 4) slurs, whether racial, sexual, ethnic, physical, or what-have-you. Slurs aren’t always included by definers of profanity, but I think Bergen is right to do so.

Bergen explores when, where, and how we use profane words and phrases, and how they are processed differently in the brain from other speech. He examines how usage varies among different social groups and classes. Though Bergen is primarily discussing English, he also details differences with other languages as to what is taboo and to what degree. (The title is the only place Bergen avoids using a particular explicit word, presumably so that the book will be displayed openly on bookstore shelves.) He explores how words change over time, becoming more or less acceptable. An example of a word drifting toward profanity is one with which I have personal experience. There are lots of Richards over age 50 who go by the name Dick. My dad did. My parents called me Dick. A few people who have known me since childhood still call me Dick, though nobody else does. Almost no one under 50 goes by that name: they are all Ricks and Riches. In a similar way “cock” is increasingly replaced in common speech by “rooster”; if one uses the former word to complain about being awakened by the chicken next door, one might be misunderstood.

All in all, What the F is a useful light on a much overlooked corner of linguistics. I’m also pleased to see a defense from Bergen of free expression – something on which one not always can count from contemporary academics, many of whom seem bent on ever-lengthening the list of taboo words and phrases. He has little patience for censorship; the damage done by taboo words is outweighed by damage done suppressing them. Bergen also argues that there is no evidence exposure to profanity harms kids.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

Friday, October 21, 2016

It Was Night in the Lonesome October

October weather in these parts is variable, to put it gently. We might get a foot of snow (as in 2011), a hurricane (as in 2012), or a heat wave (as in 2014). We might get all three – or none. The past several days, after a chilly start to the month, we have been treated to sunny balmy 82 degree (28C) days. The nights have been pleasant, too. One doesn’t always appreciate shirtsleeve nights in August, but in October they are infrequent and therefore especially welcome.

Wednesday was just such a night. With all outside lights shut off, I sat outside in the dark for a while. I do that sometimes. The sky was clear, the stars were bright, and aircraft too high to hear crisscrossed overhead. Despite the peaceful scene, I soon was on primal alert – not by intent but by instinct. My home is surrounded by woods and crepitation beyond the tree line meant something large was moving about. The odds are that the sounds in the woods were made by deer, but I wasn’t going to walk over there to find out and I was keenly aware of the distance from where I sat to the back door. For most of human existence large predators have been a serious threat. We have been on their menu. Inside our cozy homes on land stripped of large predators (other than our own kind) by our forebears, we tend to forget that – but only intellectually, not emotionally. Predators still haunt our thoughts. Sounds and shadows in the dark still get our adrenaline pumping. Our bodies still react as though hyenas are stalking us.

Here in New Jersey’s suburban fringe, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will not be eaten by hyenas. Mountain lions, once native the state, no longer exist here. Coyotes and black bears do, but neither animal is much interested in people. Bear attacks do happen on rare occasion, but almost always as a result of a surprise encounter that startles both person and bear. Bears are quite capable of being dangerous: last year one killed a deer in my yard and left half of it for me to clean up. One could kill a person just as easily, but for whatever reason they don’t make any special effort to do it. So, I was safe and secure in the dark whatever my limbic system said to the contrary.

Makers of horror films try to tickle these same limbic structures with their fare – and we are treated to a lot of their fare in October. Back inside my house, having had enough of the real horror unfolding on TV (the final Presidential debate), I selected the flick The Cabin in the Woods, which takes place at another…well…cabin in the woods. Filmed in 2009 but not released until 2012 due to MGM’s bankruptcy, this movie got very disparate reviews when in theaters: for every enthusiastic “Wicked fun!” there was another “Disappointing.” Upon having seen it, this doesn’t surprise me. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who had worked together on Buffy, like to mix genres: in this case, horror with a kind of off-beat comedy – not outright satire, which is fairly common (e.g. Student Bodies), but something more idiosyncratic. I can see why hardcore horror fans were perplexed by it – even annoyed. But I’m with the crowd that found it fun.

 "athlete, scholar, whore, fool, virgin"
A stereotypical horror film involves a group of isolated young people whose lives are in peril from some attacker(s), be the attacker a beast, a supernatural entity, or just a plain criminal. The members of the group are predictable archetypes with predictable behaviors who meet predictable fates. What if there is a deeper reason for these archetypes than just “convention?” What if they are a half-conscious echo of something real? What if each year human youths are offered up as ritualistic sacrifice by a secret organization to placate Ancient Ones? What if the ritual is all important: that the youths must transgress and be punished in some defined way? All of that is the premise of The Cabin in the Woods. There are multiple sacrifices around the world and many cultural variations to the rituals, but in each case the attention to ritual matters; at least one of the sacrifices has to succeed each year or the Ancient Ones will be angry. What happens if, for some combination of reasons, one year all of the ritual sacrifices fail? In Cabin the isolated youths unwittingly risk this happening by not being true to their archetypes.

Many people wonder if there is more to the world than meets the eye. Some hope there is. Cabin once again warns to be careful what you wish for.

Thumbs Up, but not for everyone: in particular, not for pure slasher aficionados.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Jerzey Derby Brigade vs Shore Points Roller Derby

In last night’s entertaining bout in Morristown, NJ, the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) on its home track faced Shore Points Roller Derby visiting from south Jersey. Both teams deployed similar tactics, using the diamond formation blocking technique to good effect. Shore Points fields a strong team, and, despite animated skating on both sides, took an early lead and soon built it to 30 points. Shore Points skaters #17 Meggo and #25 Lemonade repeatedly proved hard to stop, occasionally sailing through dense blocking. Minutes before the end of the first half, however, the game took a dramatic turn. JDB jammer #3684 CaliforniKate closed part of the gap. Then in a power jam against Shore Point blockers thinned by penalties, #235 A Bomb lapped the pack 5 times thereby giving JDB a 1 point lead (90-89) at halftime.

It is October after all, so halftime was marked by a Halloween costume contest – also by congratulations to #33 Doom Hilda celebrating 10 years of derby.

In the second half, #17 Meggo immediately recaptured the lead for Shore Points – a lead narrowed by JDB #8 Lil MO Peep in the subsequent jam. Blocking grew fiercer with skaters repeatedly taken off their feet. Shore Points #85 Buns N Roses was taken down hard enough to leave the track temporarily, though she later returned to jam. Shore Points once again built up a lead as it had in the first half (until the last few minutes of it). Despite spirited jams right up to the end by CaliforniKate, A Bomb, and Lil Mo Peep, the point spread was too much to overcome in the last minutes of the second half. Sore Points prevailed with a Final Score of 162 – 220.

MVPs: #8 Lil MO Peep (jammer) and #93 Freudian Slap (blocker) for JDB; #17 Outbreak “St. Marie” Meggo (jammer) and #96 Curse Me Thirsty (blocker) for Shore points.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Another Fine Mess

Four short reviews of October reads:

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (copyright 2016) by Tim Harford

Harford, senior columnist at The Financial Times and author of The Undercover Economist, extolls the virtues of disorder. He is in good company. Asked Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

There are places where neatness counts. On a factory assembly line you don’t want random parts strewn about where they can trip workers and jam machinery. But where a mess doesn’t represent a physical hazard it aids creativity and productivity. Not just physical messiness: the most productive brainstorming teams are those in which the members don’t get along very well. Members of those types of teams have the least fun, to be sure, but they outperform genial teams, which are prone to groupthink since members are reluctant to challenge each other’s assumptions in a way that could undermine friendliness. Working on multiple projects at once, as did author/screenwriter/producer Michael Crichton for example, doesn’t dilute focus so much as keep it fresh; we all weary of something we do day in and day out, so diverting ourselves with another project cam refresh us and promotes creative cross-fertilization of ideas.

Harford doesn’t merely make assertions. He walks us through numerous psychological and sociological experiments on how disorder and order in various physical and social environments affects individuals and groups. Regrettably, most of us find disorder uncomfortable – our messes are likely a result of laziness rather than disordered activity. We like things arranged neatly. Our relationships too: people tend to seek out like-minded people and comfortably narrow their perspectives accordingly.

We can benefit from less neatness. As the Joker advised in The Dark Knight, “Introduce a little anarchy.” OK, maybe he’s not the best example, but, one must admit, he was creative.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

**** ****

The Last Days of Night (copyright 2016) by Graham Moore

Historical novels often center on political figures and statesmen if only because there is a fair chance the reader knows who they are. But most of the world’s interesting people are and always have been private citizens: inventors, businesspeople, artists, writers, entertainers, and thieves. In The Last Days of Night the backdrop is the epic patent battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to determine the future of electric power in the United States – Edison championing DC current and Westinghouse AC. The viewpoint of the novel is that of Paul Cravath, the 27-year-old attorney chosen by George Westinghouse in 1888 because pricier and more experienced lawyers didn’t want to damage their own practices by opposing the powerful and often vengeful Edison.

The major players in the novel are real including Edison’s henchmen and the opera house singer Agnes Huntington. The battle was not confined to courtrooms; it involved arson, corporate spying, and sabotage. Almost as a gruesome prank, Edison invented an AC-powered electric chair in order to demonstrate the dangers of AC power: this despite Edison’s public opposition to capital punishment. His aides greased enough palms to get the New York legislature to approve the device for executions. A key figure in all this drama was the brilliant but oddball inventor/scientist Nikola Tesla who technically worked for Westinghouse but cared for little outside his laboratory. Tesla’s quirks raised many eyebrows among those who worked with him. For example, Paul Cravath, sitting at a table with Tesla at Delmonico’s, observed him calculating the volume of his dinner. Paul asked him if he always did such calculations prior to eating. Tesla answered, “Well, of course not; do not mistake me for a crazy. I can only ingest a dinner the cubic volume of which adds to a number divisible by three.”

The novel is well-researched and well-written. Moore takes a complex web of events and delivers it as a concisely coherent narrative. Moore honed this skill as a screenwriter, notably of The Imitation Game. He also has written a script for a film version of The Last Days of Night, which is in pre-production.

Enjoyable and Informative. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Sugarshock! (copyright 2007) by Joss Whedon & Fabio Moon

Back in the 20-naughts, in between the TV series Firefly and Dollhouse, writer/director Joss Whedon experimented with a variety of old and new media, releasing books, comic books, and film both the old-fashioned way and digitally. Sugarshock! is a one-off digital comic written by himself and illustrated by Fabio Moon. It was posted online in 2007 and won the Eisner award for Best Web Comic. It was popular enough that Dark Horse eventually released a paper-and-ink edition as well, which is the one I bought.

“Sugarshock!” is a rock band at some unspecified future date. It is fronted by the Viking-hating (“Don’t be a Viking!”) Dandelion Naizen. The bass player is a robot. Dandelion doesn’t explain her Viking prejudice, and she keeps letting Norse mythological references (“By Odin!”) “accidentally” slip into her speech. Dandelion, we suspect, can’t possibly be as flaky she likes to seem, but then again maybe she is. She accepts an invitation to an intergalactic battle of the bands only to discover that “battle” is not meant metaphorically.

Inventive, funny, and a good story. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

A Hell of a Woman (copyright 1954) by Jim Thompson

I plucked out this novel, one of several Jim Thompson books on my shelves, for a re-read a while back. Two blogs ago I predicted, “I’ll probably enjoy it again. I’ll let you know.” I did and I do. Few people write so well as Thompson about the lowlife dregs of society – not people who are poor in cash but instead poor in character.

“Dolly” (aka Frank Dillon) is a sleazy door-to-door salesman for Pay-E-Zee stores. He skims off his company’s books as much as he dares but still can’t get ahead. He is contemptuous of his wife Joyce who is just like all the previous women in his life: “Tramps, that’s all I got.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he is the one picking them. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that any part of his “rotten” life could be caused by anything but lousy luck and meanspirited bosses.

His life takes a turn when he meets the beautiful Mona whose unpleasant aunt is sitting on a $100,000 insurance settlement (close to $2,000,000 in today’s dollars). We already know that no turn in Dolly’s life can be for the better; he wouldn’t allow it. Intrigue, sex, betrayal, and murder ensue.

Marvelous noir novel. Thumbs Up.

**** ****