Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens

JDB (Jerzey Derby Brigade), hoping to keep its undefeated 2017 record intact, last night on its home Morristown track hosted the Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens (MDRV) visiting from Hagerstown, MD. Early signs were that JDB would do just that. Pushing through very well organized blocking by Mason-Dixon, #3684 Californikate put JDB into a 10-point lead in a power jam. Gains by one side, notably by #00 Mental Block and #235 A Bomb, were balanced by gains by the other, notably #88 Poison Princess and #1958 Thee Mighty Isis, leaving the point spread little changed at half-time: 79 - 66 in favor of JDB.

The second half from the start looked different from the first as Mason-Dixon hit its groove. With a power jam by #14 Mystery May Terror, despite a solid hit by #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes, MDRV overtook JDB 87-90. Thanks to spirited jamming and effective formation blocking MDRV expanded its lead to 28 points. That is a vulnerable lead in derby, however, as Californikate proved in the 16 point power jam that put the score at a very competitive 107-117. Poison Princess rebuilt a 25 point lead in a power jam, however, and the clock began to work against JDB. Despite gamely skated jams and rough-and-tumble blocking by JDB skaters, MDRV built on its lead in the remaining minutes. #88 Poison Princess brought the bout home for Mason-Dixon by putting 28 points on the board in the final jam.

Final Score 139 - 228 in favor of Mason-Dixon.

For Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens #22 Lucretia McEvil as blocker, #88 Poison Princess as jammer
For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #221 Det. Dure-Block Holmes as blocker, #00 Mental Block as jammer

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

This Week’s Sequel: Not Just a Replicant

Blade Runner 2049 has received glowing reviews from nearly all the major critics. It is a sequel to a movie that regularly scores in Top 5 lists of the best science fiction movies ever made. So why were there only 6 people (5 plus myself) in the 350 seat theater where I saw the movie? Nor was this an anomaly. The opening weekend ($31.5 million in the US for a movie costing $150 million) doesn’t even rise to the level of disappointing. One reason is evident from my handful of co-viewers: all but one was a guy and no one was under 30. This was not an anomaly either. Viewers so far overwhelmingly have been males over 25.

It is easy to forget that the original Blade Runner was in theaters 35 years ago. Today’s prime theater-going demographic was more than a decade away from being born. (One may note that the original also flopped at the box office in 1982; it gained cult status later on video.) Younger Millennials and iGens don’t have the same affection for the original that older scifi fans do. Furthermore, Blade Runner 2049 is not the fast-paced action-packed smash’em-up (e.g. The Avengers) that modern audiences expect – a fact discernible from the trailer. The film unfolds leisurely for 164 minutes. While there is no shortage of violence, it is largely confined to specific characters without the city-destroying spectacular mayhem so prevalent in flicks lately. Many theatergoers apparently don’t trust that less flashy elements of the movie (such as the script) can hold their attention. As it happens the stay-aways are missing out, for there is much to offer in this film. The bleak but gaudy cityscapes and landscapes are visually impressive while grounded in the vision of the original movie (and of Philip K. Dick’s novella), and the script is intelligent.

Never mind the impossible timeline: scifi movies chronically are set much too near in the future (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey). In this alternate earth, space and bio technology advanced at a far more rapid pace while the environmental and demographic collapse is more severe. As in the first Blade Runner, replicants (bio-engineered people) are manufactured and used as a servile caste on earth and in space. The newer models have more obedience built into them than the older ones, but there is evidence they can evolve beyond those restrictions. Though a replicant himself, “K” (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a law enforcer tasked with hunting down and eliminating those errant models, particularly the older less controllable ones. K has a VR companion Joi (Ana de Armas) whose machine artificial intelligence raises the same question (is she “real”?) with regard to him that he faces with regard to natural-born humans. The replicants are unable to reproduce in the natural way, but it seems that two older models (yes, that’s where Harrison Ford fits in – reprising old roles is getting to be a habit with him) managed to do it, showing that such a design is possible. (This is precisely the key plot element in R.U.R., Karel Capek’s 1920 play about self-aware robots [the word “robot” was invented by Capek], so it has a venerable heritage.) Blade Runner 2049 asks questions about the nature of personhood, of individuality, of family, of group identity, and of servitude.

All in all, it was a well-spent 164 minutes. Thumbs Up.

By the way, the answer to the question about personhood – unarticulated but inherent in the movie – is that it belongs to any entity able to ask the question consciously.

Blade Runner 2049 – Trailer

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fireside Fiction

On days when terrible events fill the news, which on a global basis is every day, the mundane events in a quiet life seem trivial. Yet, they also make one grateful for the chance to be trivial.

One such unimportant event was the covering of the pool a few days ago, a moment that always makes me wistful. I’ve written before on the impracticality of swimming pools in this part of the country (see Closing Time). Affordability issues aside, were I to build a home from scratch I would not include one. (My current home was built decades ago by my parents for themselves, and they did want one.) The amount of trouble and labor outweighs the fun – and there is the cost. However, it is there, so I make the most of it. Since early-May I’ve started every morning, including many of less than 50 degrees (10 C), with a dive in the unheated water. (Yes, the pool has a heater but, except on rare occasion for company, I never use it; the heater wasn’t lit once in 2017.) The dive is an effective wake-me-up. By October, however, it’s courting hypothermia. So, the cover goes on and my personal autumn begins. I balanced the pool closing with a flue opening: the first use of the fireplace since April. There are worse ways to initiate a season than a quiet evening with a fire and a good book. The book was a classic mystery novel: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, chosen for a title that seemed appropriate for an extended goodbye to summer.

All of us have an anarchist streak. In many of us it is subdued and in a few it is dominant: it’s the part of us that regards the law as something well-suited for the constraint our neighbors. We ourselves, on the other hand, chafe under the same constraints. Hence the popularity of antiheroes so long as they are not actually sadistic and have enough likable qualities for us to identify with them. We applaud Dirty Harry even though we oppose allowing police really to act like that. We admire the crew of the Firefly class ship Serenity even though they are insurrectionists and thieves. James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance strives to bring the rule of law to a Western territory, yet he achieves this by extra-legal means and we’re OK with that. We like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, too. The point is not that these characters go out of their way to violate the rules, but rather that they live by their own. In practice, many folks willingly trade such independence of thought and action for security, but not without regrets. The Grateful Dead are not normally the first philosophers I reference, but they did lyricize poignantly about traveling one’s own way (besides, the tune is playing on my stereo): There is a road, no simple highway/Between the dawn and the dark of night/And if you go no one may follow/That path is for your steps alone.

The Long Goodbye was Chandler’s favorite novel. Few critics agree with him, but this is to be expected. Artists of any kind are always fondest of the creation that is most personal to them, which seldom is the one that appeals most to others. I side with Chandler on this one, but that too is for personal reasons. Published in 1953, fourteen years after The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye features a detective Philip Marlowe whom time has not mellowed. On the contrary, he is older, more jaded, more tired, and more cynical than ever before. He believes corrupt politics, corrupt police, and organized crime are the inescapable price of civilization, and he shrugs at this. He considers the law to coincide only infrequently with ethics, and he ignores it when it is inconvenient. Yet despite appearances Marlowe is not a misanthrope. Marlowe explains his seemingly inexplicable actions to a frenemy cop, “I’m a romantic, Bernie. I hear voices in the night and I go see what’s the matter.” It’s a telling statement for the character and for Chandler himself: while it may not be obvious on the surface, both character and author ultimately are romantics.

Basic premise of The Long Goodbye: Marlowe befriends a man named Terry Lennox and puts himself on the wrong side of the law by helping him. He then puts himself on the wrong side of the powers-that-be when Lennox seemingly is murdered and Marlowe investigates. He simultaneously is plied by a beautiful and complicated woman to help in a case involving her husband, the commercially successful but alcoholic hack writer of thrillers Roger Wade, an ironic caricature of Chandler himself. There are side plots as well, but in Chandler novels they always tie together in the end. We often are punished most for our good deeds, and that is the case here. Yet even though the people Marlowe tries most to help prove in the end not to have been worth it, he doesn’t regret having tried. It’s that romantic thing again.

There is of course a difference between living by one’s own standards and killing by them. While the fellow currently in the news might be no more than a nut (we don’t yet know), true believers and idealists are most often the most dangerous; they justify their mayhem as a means to a better world. Better to be cynical but romantic.

The Grateful Dead – Ripple

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Since its discovery 20 years ago, the archaeological site Gobekli Tepe (Belly Hill) in southern Turkey has turned traditional theories on the origins of civilization on their heads. Traditionally it was supposed that the development of farming (the Neolithic Revolution) and animal husbandry created food surpluses that could be appropriated by armed chieftains to pay for the (non-food-producing) craftsmen and scholars who made cities and temples possible. The elaborate and massive megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe (stones are over 6 meters tall and weigh more than 20 tons) was built 12,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers. The last Ice Age hadn’t yet wheezed its last chilly breaths. It was thousands of years before Stonehenge.

Klaus Schmidt, lead archaeologist at the site, speculates that the requirements of building the site and others like it demanded more food for all the craftsmen, artists, quarry workers, and other laborers than could be provided by hunting local game and picking berries. He suggests that the construction of the site pushed the development of farming and husbandry in order to provide the necessary surplus rather than the other way around. Yet there are no signs at all of permanent settlement – no villages or urbanism anywhere nearby in space or time – so nomadic hunting and gathering was still the general rule for social organization. The temple came first, not second. Nonetheless it still might have sparked the Neolithic Revolution.

Exactly how the original denizens of the site actually used it is unknowable. This was 7000 years before the Sumerians invented writing so they left no records. The sculpted artwork at the site tells us little. Mostly the images are of predators and dangerous creatures: snakes, lions, spiders, scorpions, and such. This is unlike the cave paintings of Europe which feature prey animals like gazelles and bison. What this means is anyone’s guess, but the prevalence of bringers of death in the imagery might be evidence of religious significance. Presumably it is a temple of some kind. What is almost certain is that this was a site at which large numbers of people(s) festivated regularly. Such get-togethers are a common feature of hunter-gatherer life everywhere (including in historical times among Native American tribes) and it must have happened here: a kind of “if you build it they will come.”

I’d be willing to bet gold coin that the meetings at Gobekli Tepe took place on an equinox or solstice. Prehistorical people were amazingly good observers of the sun and the moon, and the cycles of both parallel certain realities of human existence. It is hard not to see an analogy to a human life in the progression of a year from spring to winter. This is what led Robert Graves to argue in The White Goddess (still an indispensable tract to understanding the origins of Western mythology) that “All true poetry is about love, death, or the changing of the seasons.” You can write verses about other things, he said, but they don’t really amount to poetry.

I can understand this. On this past Saturday I had an equinox party at my house. I’m not a neo-pagan or someone with an astronomical fetish, yet I often host solstice and equinox parties. I usually say that this is to avoid conflict with the celebrations of others (such as Memorial Day and Labor Day), but I also am acutely aware of the seasons and of the passage of life. A couple of dozen people of different tribes (political, national, and class) with very little in common attended. Yet we all found a way to get along. I recommend giving such a mixed event a try. When you are feeling sour about your fellow human beings – which is very easy to do – it helps remind one that we are a single species after all.

On a personal level, it also happens to remind me that autumn is my time of life, though I'm figuring (perhaps self-delusionally) September.

Eric Clapton – Autumn Leaves

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Many Happy Returns

If I post a review of a movie or book at all, usually it is no more than a week or two after having seen or read it. Though a minority of books and DVDs get a mention, a majority of the movies I see in the theater do. So, Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Mummy, both seen in the theater earlier this year, are bucking the odds by not getting a mention until now. The reason is that there seemed little to say about them, but here is that little.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: The whole point of Spider-Man from his original inception as a comic book character is that he is a teen: teen hormones, teen angst, teen rebellion, and all the rest of it. He isn’t supposed to be mature – unlike Iron Man whose immaturity is an adult choice. The character doesn’t really work as an adult. Hence, the continual reboots in the comics and the movies.

In this new version, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is indeed an annoying teenager. That’s fine. Marisa Tomei makes an interesting hipper Aunt May. Michael Keaton is not a simplistic villain; he justifies his actions as reasonable in an unjust world. Parker’s fellow high schoolers are (strangely) less credible high schoolers than Parker himself, but unconvincing teens are a common flaw in teen-oriented movies. The film skips the origin story, which the screenwriters assume (correctly) we’ve all seen enough, and moves right to a tale of Peter Parker as Iron Man’s rebellious protégé.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

The Mummy: This film disappointed at the US box office, but it did well enough in international markets to avoid financial failure. If you’ve seen almost any Tom Cruise movie of the past 20 years you know exactly what to expect: action, explosions, plane crashes, mayhem, flying glass, and narrow escapes. Black market antiquities thief Nick (Tom Cruise) accidentally awakens a seriously irked mummy (Sofia Boutella) who brings Nick somewhat imperfectly under her spell. Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll – yes, that Dr. Jekyll – intervenes. The action is non-stop and the cgi work is top notch. For many viewers that seems to be enough. However, I found it hard to care about any of the characters even fleetingly. In fact, I’d rather rewatch one of the cheapy mummy pics from the 1930s-50s than this one. That earns it a

Thumbs Down – not way down, but down.

What both films inspired were thoughts on the volume of remakes, sequels, and reboots flowing from Hollywood studios. The studios’ reason for this is perfectly obvious. Audiences, including many folks who complain about all the remakes, sequels, and reboots, pay money to see them. Not all of them. Many fail, but, as a proportion, not as many as do wholly original flicks. Unsurprisingly, therefore, The Mummy is just the first reboot for Universal’s planned Dark Universe. Still to come are the reboots Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, Van Helsing, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Money is enough to explain the studios. The public, which complains but attends, is harder to figure.

For young viewers unfamiliar with an earlier version (never mind an original version) beyond an occasional pop culture reference, this is not an issue. For older viewers, though, I wonder if there is not something akin to repetition compulsion in it. First described by Sigmund Freud, repetition compulsion is behind the common tendency, for example, to date or marry virtual clones of the same woman or man time and again. I’ve done it. Maybe you have, too. Sig said that we try to recreate the conditions of our childhood particularly in our romantic lives. If those childhoods are happy that’s likely to be OK, but we tend to be drawn to people who poke unresolved childhood wounds, usually involving the relationship with our parents. We hope to make them right the second (or third or fourth or fifth) time around. The hopes are usually dashed. Our attachment to an old movie is not in the same category as our attachment to a human being, of course. (Well, maybe for some people it is; if so, there is probably a term for them.) Movies do speak to us emotionally however. Some movies do so for entirely healthy reasons, I’m sure, but some do because they also speak to our unresolved issues. Maybe here, too, we hope for comfort and resolution by doing it again.

Queens of the Stone Age - Do It Again

Sunday, September 17, 2017

September 16 Local Derby Recap: Nail Biter in Morristown

Last night at its home track in Morristown NJ the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted the Salisbury All Stars visiting from MD.

After a string of home track victories this year, the JDB may well have anticipated last night’s bout with confidence. The first few jams gave further reason for it. Despite firm blocking by both teams, a multiple pass by JDB jammer #235 A Bomb put the early score at 18-5; #3684 Californikate and #8 Lil Mo Peep added to the JDB lead, the latter by nicely pushing through a momentary weak spot in the Salisbury defensive wall. It soon became apparent that this would be no rollover, however. Salisbury blocking stiffened while points were racked up by their jammers #333 Lexa Cution, #1212 Point Setta, and (despite a hard takedown) #18 Snowflake. At 16 minutes into the bout a jam by Lexa Cution put Salisbury into the lead 47-50. It was the first of several reversals. Californikate took back the lead for JDB and then #32 Power Puff Pusher, who also is a hardhitting blocker, took it back for Salisbury. The last jam of the first half began with 1 second on the clock, and resulted in yet another reversal in favor of JDB at 83-76.

The second half continued to show two evenly matched teams, with well-coordinated formation blocking and one-on-one hits. The score continued to seesaw, tying more than once. Momentarily the point spread grew to 130-115 but Salisbury’s #5150 Emma Hitcha cut the lead to 10 points in a power jam. With 6 minutes remaining the score was tied again at 151-151. A jam by A Bomb gave JDB a 4 point lead, which Lexa Cution in turn reduced to 1 point. In a finish hard to beat for excitement, with seconds remaining, A Bomb faced Point Setta in the final jam; breaking through as lead jammer, A Bomb deliberately ran out the clock. JDB prevailed with a Final Score of 169-168.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


On the heels of Harvey’s havoc in Houston, Huricane Irma inundates Florida. I’ve been in a few hurricanes over the years and so far have been fortunate. One was Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in 1999, which I rode out without serious incident in a hotel. Most hurricanes cease to be hurricanes by the time they reach my home state of NJ, but there are exceptions. Hurricane Sandy back in 2012 struck the state with hurricane force winds and torrential rain, though for technical reasons it was at that point categorized as an extratropical cyclone. Regardless of terminology, the storm claimed lives and caused damage that at the time made it second only to Katrina as the financially costliest storm in US history. Again I was lucky: trees came down in my driveway and yard but (barely) missed the house and barn. My home was without power for a couple weeks, but I was inconvenienced rather than harmed. Both Harvey and Irma have been lethal and both are sure to set new records in money damages.

The deadliest hurricane in US history – in fact the deadliest US natural disaster of any kind – is known as the Great Storm of 1900. In those pre-satellite days, the residents of Galveston Texas had a totally inadequate single day’s warning of the oncoming storm. A 15 foot (4.6 meter) storm surge washed over the island; it destroyed buildings and killed 12,000 people. Nowadays warnings come enough in advance to avoid loss of life on that scale, but there are always those who do not or cannot heed evacuation orders.

I do not wish to minimize in any way the current storms, which have consequences both brutal and tragic for those in their paths. For most folks, however, the good news, if one may call it that, is that the chances of meeting one’s end in a natural disaster are remote. Something catches up to all of us eventually, of course; 1 in 120 American residents die in any given year. Naturally the odds vary by age group. Overwhelmingly that final something is likely to be a natural health problem such as heart disease. The second most likely cause is accident (5% of all deaths), and the third is violence at the hands of humans (including ourselves). Insurance actuaries have calculated with their usual precision the odds of being done in by forces of nature, and they are reassuring.

Some examples of annual fatality risk from natural forces:
Lightning                                            1 in 4,326,748
Earthquakes                                        1 in 9,288,426
Cataclysmic storm                               1 in 4,570,498
Floods                                                 1 in 31,993,469
Natural heat                                        1 in 822,689
All natural forces combined                1 in 236,211

None of those numbers constitutes a good enough reason to be complacent about an oncoming hurricane though. If one is headed your way, leave or hunker down according to expert advice at the time. As for other risks both natural and unnatural, quoth Effie in The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Come to think of it, the context of that line that might not be very comforting, so let’s just go with “good luck” instead.

Barenaked Ladies - Odds Are

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yellow Leaves and Buses

I saw the strangest thing on my street on Thursday: a teenager. (See last blog about iGens.) What’s more, not 500 feet away was another one. Astonishing.

I live in a cluster of four cul-de-sacs that share a common entrance with the main road. (“Main” may give a misleading impression of the winding 20-foot wide road.) In my cluster there are 36 houses. Most of them contain at least one person of school-age. Based on the passengers of school buses and soccer vans that whiz up and down the street in mornings and afternoons on school days, I’d guesstimate there are no fewer than 30 students that attend elementary, middle, and high school – maybe more than 40. Yet during summer vacation I NEVER see them: not on bikes, not in yards, not walking, not anything. I don’t even hear them even though kids aren’t known for being quiet when swimming and half the houses in the neighborhood have pools.

The local high school
So what accounted for the dual apparition on Thursday? Apparently, a few schools these days start the school year (or at least some school activities) the last week of August. The teens were waiting to be picked up for school. Their noses were in their phones, of course, which might give a hint about how they spent their time when they vanished for the summer.

Contrary to popular legend, summer vacation is a not holdover from agriculturally dominant days when kids needed to work on the farm. Summer is the wrong time of the year for one thing. CUNY historian Kenneth Gold explains that summer vacation is an urban invention. 19th century educational reformist Amariah Brigham, among others, successfully argued that school in the summer was a factor in “a growing tide of insanity” among urban young people. Well, we can’t have that.

My sister and I, not at school but in 1957
I was one of those weird kids who actually liked school and looked forward to September. It occurs to me, by the way, that today is the anniversary of my very first day of it: September 3, 1957. (We didn’t do pre-school back then.) I remember it. I helped make the day memorable by getting on the wrong bus afterward to come home. Somehow in those pre-cellphone days the bus driver knew where I lived; after making his regular run he drove right up my driveway to drop me off. (Was getting on the wrong bus a common enough occurrence that he had a clipboard with all student addresses? To this day, I don’t know.) It wasn’t my last mistake in school-related matters, and it was far from the worst one. Still, though I mostly enjoyed school, I can’t say I miss it. Most kids don’t like it in the first place, and their position is not unreasonable. By and large school has been made a tedious and joyless place from which any fun that might be had from learning is carefully excised.

This may change as schooling increasingly moves online. This was foreseen long ago by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. In 1951, almost 30 years before the first home computers, Asimov describes them as home teaching machines for children in his short story The Fun They Had. In his tale, two children in the 22nd century discover an old paper-and-ink school textbook in the attic. They are astonished to learn that large numbers of children once attended “classes” together led by live human teachers. The story concludes, “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”

The story was and still is widely anthologized in school books, largely because educators almost always miss Asimov’s point. In his eclectic book The Roving Mind, Asimov complains that those school anthologies “together with certain letters I get, often make it clear that the story is interpreted non-ironically as a boost for contemporary education.” His true point is that the future kids on their machines, able to proceed at their own pace and to break for play on their own schedules, are learning better and (though they don’t know it) are having a much better time. As for the social aspects of school (many of them awful, really), they can be had much more cheaply and pleasantly in non-school settings.

For now, however, the appearance of students at school bus stops are akin to the first hint of yellow in the leaves: a prelude to autumn. The two teens will be joined by others Tuesday when most schools open their doors. Tomorrow, after all, is Labor Day, the “unofficial end of summer.”

I don’t care much for unofficial beginnings and endings, however, so in my book it’s still summer until the equinox, which is September 22 this year. I’ll likely have one more BBQ the weekend of the equinox to celebrate it. Until then, despite unseasonably cold weather I’ll stubbornly start each morning with a dive in the unheated pool – even if the water numbs.

The Donnas - I Don't Wanna Go To School

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Generation App

Millennials (those born 1980-1999) have garnered intense attention for more than a decade. Concerned attention always is given to the young, and it is enhanced by the sheer size of this particular generation. Millennials are the first generation to outnumber the Boomers (1946-1964), though admittedly only because one more birth year is included in the definition. The attention has been accompanied by copious commentary, much of it unflattering. But the time has come, as it does to members of every generation, when they have the chance to chut-chut about the next one. Those born between the year 2000 and the present, sometimes called Generation Z and sometimes iGen, are the current crop of “the kids today.” The first wave of them will be graduating high school in 2018. Jean Twenge, PhD, whose book Generation Me defined the Millennials, has turned her eyes to the next group in her new book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Religious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Before going any further, a few comments about generalizations and generations are in order, for a common complaint about books such as Twenge’s is that there is too much individual variation among people for generalizations to be valid. This is true when we speak of any random individual, but there can be statistical consistencies within a large group that are worthy of note. For any given behavior there is bell curve distribution. For teenagers in the 1950s, for example, there were, as today, bohemians and conformists, drinkers and abstainers, risk takers and safety seekers, smokers and nonsmokers, leftists and rightists, and so on. But it is simply wrong to argue that there is therefore no difference between teens in the 1950s and teens today. Of course there is a difference: the centerlines of the bell curves, where most folks live, are in very different places today than they were then. Take marriage: nearly half of all teenage women in the 1950s got married before they reached 20. Today we are surprised and alarmed when a teenager marries. Twenge does not ignore the tails of the bell curves where the outliers live. While noting the decline in religiosity, for example, she interviews evangelicals as well as secularists; nonetheless the centerline of the bell curve has shifted over the years and that is noteworthy.

What about the boundaries of generations? They are not always clear but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Generations are rather like watersheds, formed by ridges (social moments) that need not be tall. Like water, how and where we flow culturally is shaped by which side of a ridge on which we live. Those near the ridge on either side share a lot of similarities with each other. The last cohort of Boomers born in the ‘60s, for example, have many similarities to GenX (1965-1979), but fundamentally they are still Boomers. They share a cultural milieu with other Boomers right down to the music they play and the clothes they wear. iGen members are no older than 17 at this writing, but they have enough in common with the youngest cohort (1995-1999) of Millennials that Twenge includes many of the latter in her surveys and interviews for greater insight into how the generation is growing up. The answer, by the way, is slowly. One thing iGen members have in common is that they can’t really remember a time before smart phones, and this turns out to be key.

Several of Twenge’s conclusions are in her title. They are not pulled out thin air. Many governmental and non-governmental agencies and entities have been tracking the most arcane details about youths for decades: the American Freshman Survey, the General Social Survey, Monitoring the Future, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, etc. These allow us to compare today’s teens not to their elders today, which is often misleading, but to what their elders were like when they were teens. This gives a clearer sense of trends, which Twenge illustrates anecdotally even as she graphs the actual numbers. The smart phone is intimately bound to all the trends. As one 13-year-old told her, “I would rather be on my phone in my room watching Netflix than spending time with my family…I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” In most Western countries iGen is extremely diverse in background; in the US it is the first generation not to be majority white. There is very little diversity in the trends, however; the same ones hold across ethnic and class lines.

Some of the characteristics of iGen seem an unalloyed good. They are safety-minded to the point of making the notoriously safety-minded Millennials look reckless by comparison. They drink later (if at all), do drugs less, smoke less, have sex later (if at all), and have fewer unwanted pregnancies than any generation since 1940 when reliable numbers first became available. Twenge argues this is not a sign of greater maturity, however, but rather its opposite. Teens are growing up more slowly. By all the numbers 18-year-olds look and act like 14 and 15-year-olds once did. They drive later and often have to be pushed by parents into getting licenses. They are less likely to have summer or after-school jobs than any generation before them. They are in no hurry to grow up and don’t hesitate to say so. “Adult” is used as a distasteful verb to describe activities like paying bills or earning a paycheck; most commonly it is in present participle form, as in “adulting sucks!” This helps explain student demands that colleges (in loco parentis) be emotionally safe spaces instead of spaces where they are treated as adults as Boomers once demanded. In particular, they like to be protected from ideas and opinions different from their own. This is not just a North American phenomenon. When British author Claire Fox was a guest at a UK girls’ high school for a debate, instead of reasoned arguments she unexpectedly encountered tears and the plaint “You can’t say that!”

There are positives to iGen. They are less bigoted than any previous generation and more tolerant of alternate sexualities. But they are aware they are lagging in some ways, which may contribute to depression. “In just the few years between 2012 and 2015, more and more teens said they don’t enjoy life…Across all six items depression has skyrocketed in just a few years, a trend that appears among blacks, whites, and Hispanics, in all regions of the United States, across socioeconomic classes…” Or perhaps it’s that living one’s life mostly on Snapchat and Instagram is not as satisfying as one might hope. The same 13-year-old quoted above mentions that in-person company is not enough to compete with the lure of the phone. “I’m trying to talk to them about something and they don’t actually look At. My. Face.”

The good news is that iGen (resembling GenX in some ways, which for all its youthful pessimism was pretty successful) doesn’t have grandiose expectations about economic prospects, so they are less likely to be disappointed than the preceding generation. They are a more practical bunch than Millennials. They are certainly technologically savvy. If they just put down their phones occasionally they’ll probably be alright – if just a few years late.

A marvelous animation starring the smart phone:
Moby and Void Pacific Choir – Are You Lost In The World Like Me?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Yonder Window

My house, not unlike myself, is getting old. I fight entropy in both cases as best I can but with an eye to the wallet, which is far from thick enough to be safely ignored. I have yet to require any replacement parts for myself unless you count a few dental crowns, but the structures on my property have not fared quite so well. Roofs, retaining walls, doors, furnaces, faucet valves, central air units, and kitchen appliances are among the many things that have decided to retire while I still had want of their services. Not wanting to emulate Grey Gardens, I patch or replace as needed, though no more than needed, which is to say I do no purely decorative remodeling. I do hire professionals, albeit reluctantly, when I don’t trust myself (e.g. for furnace troubles or for plumbing repairs beyond the most basic toilet-mechanism-replacement sort of thing), but if it is just a matter of mixing cement, wielding a shovel, or swinging a hammer I’ll be cheap and do it myself. I will admit to having had second thoughts while recently re-roofing the barn; about halfway through, it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t 18 anymore. However, once the roof was done – well, after the aches and pains faded anyway – I was glad to have saved the $.

The do-it-yourself job this past weekend was a window replacement. For passive solar reasons my roof has two-foot (61 cm) overhangs and no gutters. The rainwater spills directly onto gravel catchment pads which recharge the ground. This works well, but there is one basement window in one back corner of the house that is beneath a roof valley and so gets a lot of backsplash from the gravel during heavy rains. Unsurprisingly, after several decades of this it was the one window that was rotting away. (A few other windows have problems, such as cranky crank mechanisms, but none is rotting.) Replacing it along with the exterior frame and trim took me all day instead of the couple hours it would take a pro, but at least the cost was just in the low three figures instead of four. The original window manufacturer is no longer in business, which is just as well. In place of the original double casement with its finicky Rube Goldberg-esque cranks, I put in a slider: no gears, levers, and rolling wheels to foul.

Windows are an obvious solution to the need for interior light and ventilation, so it is no surprise that everywhere in the world they are as old as permanent structures themselves. Weather being variable, ventilation is not always welcome, however, so for comfort (and security) some way to close them was necessary. Hinged wooden shutters were the preferred solution and they persist to this day, but they defeat the “light” purpose. Something translucent was desired. In the ancient West the most common early solution for upscale folk was parchment (thin treated animal skin) while in the East it was paper. Fabric was a lower cost alternative. All three work but have limitations. Glass seems like an obvious answer today, but the ancients had a very hard time getting the stuff transparent. Until they did it offered no advantages for windows.

Glass per se is not difficult to make. Even the Sumerians were able to do it. Heat up a silicate (SiO2) such as quartz until the crystalline bonds break and you have glass. You can reduce the temperature at which this happens by adding a flux such as potash. Cuneiform tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (650 BCE) include a recipe for glass. But that just gives you a blob of rapidly cooling glass. Turning it into something useful is much more difficult. Making it clear (manganese dioxide is the key ingredient for that) took centuries of trial and error. The Romans were the first to make glass windows in large numbers, and not until the first century CE. Because of the production techniques, the windows were small panes set in mullions. Techniques for rolling large sheets of plate glass had to wait until early modern times; Louis XIV wanted them for the mirrors and windows of Versailles.

Today, of course, as a small part of the overflowing muchness of the modern world, large glass windows are so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about them – until, that is, we have to replace them. Or when a gremlin stares back at you through one. I hate when that happens.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Looking Out the Window

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It’s a Mystery

Mystery novels are not my default fiction genre for reading myself to sleep at night, but they do show up on my end tables occasionally. Last week three were my soporifics. That probably doesn’t sound flattering to the books, but they didn’t last a week precisely because all proved to be good reads.

** **

Runaway by Peter May (2015)

Runaway is billed as mystery fiction, and it is, but it stretches the definition beyond the usual limits. Veteran Scottish crime fiction author and screenwriter Peter May tells a tale of youthful adventure and late-life remorse – and, of course, murder.  There are no private investigators and no police, except as people to be avoided.

The novel alternates between 1965 and 2015. In 1965 the central character Jack MacKay, upon his expulsion from high school, convinces four of his friends to leave notes for their parents and run off with him from Glasgow to London in a van in order to become a successful band in London – something the author tried himself as a teenager. Along the way, Maurie, one of the runaway friends, insists on picking up his cousin Rachel in Leeds to rescue her from an abusive relationship. Despite one disaster after another, the six make it to London where they fall in with a trendy psychologist who dabbles in LSD, celebrities, and attractive young men. Heartbreak and murder ensue. Three of the original runaways including Jack return to Glasgow feeling beaten and disillusioned.

50 years later, the prime suspect in the 1965 slaying is himself murdered. Maurie, who is terminally ill and barely ambulatory, learns of this and urges a second runaway, this time from offspring and grandchildren. Once again he means to travel from Glasgow to London where two of the original six had stayed behind in ‘65. Jack and Dave need little persuasion. Jack maneuvers his grandson into driving them in a trip that is scarcely less eventful than the first one. There is much unfinished business in London after all these years. The two murders – one a half-century old and one new – are only a part of it, and mostly for Maurie. For the others it’s largely a poignant tale of paths not taken and of choices that still exist.

This finely written novel is not the usual mystery fare, and it likely speaks the most to those old enough to contemplate the consequences of those untaken paths.

** **

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

After Peter May, it was time for a well-seasoned classic, and it’s hard to get more classic than Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is a century too late to be the prototype pulp detective, but he nonetheless is the archetype; he is everything we still imagine a private detective to be. For those who know the character only from the movies, the portrayal most like the Marlowe of the books is that of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944). In purely cinematic terms, I like Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep better, but Powell’s is closer to the flavor of the literary character: a world-weary cynical wisecracker who doesn’t take life very seriously, yet chooses to finish the jobs he takes even when it would be far wiser and safer not to. My pick was The Little Sister, which I hadn’t previously read.

The Little Sister is the fifth of the seven Marlowe novels and the last from the decade in which the character is most at home. By 1949 several of Chandler’s novels and short stories had been adapted to the screen and he had written a few screenplays of his own including The Blue Dahlia and Double Indemnity. Chandler had had a mouthful of Hollywood and he didn’t much like the taste. (See Writers in Hollywood, an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1945 in which he explains why; multiply all his $ figures by about 20 to adjust for inflation.) He brings his insider knowledge and perspective to this novel, which features second tier actors, producers, and agents along with the criminals, lowlifes, and drug dealers interacting with them. The novel is worth the price just for the glimpse of 1940s Los Angeles.

The action begins when the interestingly named Orfamay Quest, an apparently uptight and naïve young woman from Manhattan Kansas, walks into Marlowe’s office and asks him to find her brother Orrin, who is missing. She doesn’t want to involve the police in case he has fallen in with a bad crowd and the police might cause him trouble. Orfamay is not quite what she seems to be, however, even though "nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth." Orrin and Orfamay, it soon turns out, are half-siblings of B-actress Mavis Weld who has a real chance of becoming an A-actress. Mavis is also the girlfriend of a semi-retired gangster named Steelgrave on whom the cops would love to pin something. Several seemingly unconnected threads involving photos, blackmail, greed, an old unsolved murder, drugs, film studio politics, and scorned affections intertwine. Bodies pile up from ice picks and bullets. Even more than usual, Marlowe is loose with the law, thereby annoying the police who are alternately sadistic and kind – frequently in the same encounter.

Chandler always writes very well and he often is funny even as he conveys the mood he wants: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled old and stale like a living room that had been closed too long.” Or, “Down at the drugstore lunch counter I had time to inhale two cups of coffee and a melted cheese sandwich with two slivers of ersatz bacon in it, like dead fish in the silt at the bottom of a drained pool.” Yum. The Little Sister is another solid entry in the Chandler bibliography. Definitely recommended.

** **

The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin (2000 – trans. 2008)

Anyone who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but hasn’t read Boris Akunin needs to start right now. Holmes’ contemporary Erast Fandorin first appeared in print as a 20-year-old neophyte detective in The Winter Queen, a tale set in 1876. The State Counsellor, the sixth Fandorin mystery begins in 1891.

General Krapov is secretly traveling by train from St. Petersburg to a post in Siberia, where he being sidelined for a while due to bad publicity from an incident with a female prisoner. Fandorin is responsible for Krapov’s safety during the stopover in Moscow, though the responsibility doesn’t come with adequate authority. Neither the police nor the security service are specifically under his direction and the two agencies are virtually at war with each other. Someone impersonating Fandorin boards the train before it reaches Moscow, assassinates Krapov, and escapes. Fandorin is arrested for this but is quickly released thanks to the witnesses on the train. But who leaked the information about the “secret” trip and to what killer or killers?

The reader learns the answer to the second part of that question right away. In fact, the book alternates between the perspective of Fandorin, and that of Green, the leader of the revolutionary Combat Group. We learn of the pogrom that turned him into what he is. The Combat Group throws bombs at the elites, robs banks, and commits political murders to further its purposes. We see things from the points of view of the nobility, the underclass, those in between, and the insurrectionists. Meanwhile there are personal intrigues, double agents, professional infighting, and femmes fatales. Fandorin’s job is to solve a crime, but the crime can’t be separated from the social context. Knowing what we know about Russia’s fateful upcoming 20th century adds a deep portent to all the goings-on.

Andrew Bromfield’s translation is clear and readable. That’s all one really can ask.

If you’re already an Akunin fan, this will keep you one. If you aren’t one yet, pick up The Winter Queen. You’re likely then to seek out The State Counsellor.

** **

Trailer for Murder, My Sweet (1944). Except, strangely, for the title (changed from Farewell, My Lovely), this is the truest to the spirit of a Chandler novel of any film adaptation to date.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

One of Those Blogs that Ramble Nostalgically before Getting to the Point

I live in a house that previously belonged to my parents, so naturally there are a lot of artifacts of theirs in cabinets and closets and other storage spaces. I’m no hoarder. I’m actually pretty good about keeping the place free of clutter by throwing out useless things. There are, of course, some items of sentimental value that I keep. Also, there are some things I don’t use but that are useful in principle. If they are not actually in the way, they tend to get left where they are. There are my mom’s teacups, for instance. I’m not sentimental about them. I’ve never have had a formal tea party and I doubt I ever will. On the occasions when I drink tea, I always use (as I do for coffee) a mug for its heft and capacity. I nearly always serve tea to others in mugs too. I doubt I’ve poured tea more than three or four times into a china cup in the past fifteen years, and then only for guests who specifically asked for a cup rather than a mug. Only once was the full set used during all that time, and on that occasion by a quasi-niece as a lark with her friends. Nonetheless, the space the cups occupy in the hutch otherwise would be empty, so it simply doesn’t occur to me to give them away or sell them on eBay. Writing that last sentence was the first time it ever did, but I still don’t plan on it.

What brings all this to mind is an ashtray. Years ago I disposed of most of the ashtrays that had been stored in various cabinets, but there is one that is both useful (some people do still smoke, at least outside on the porch) and of mild sentimental value. Dating to the 1940s, it was in my parents’ home before I born. I recall it being on some table or household surface my entire life.

Like most Americans of my generation I grew up in a smoke-filled house, travelled in smoke-filled cars, worked in a smoke-filled office, and relaxed in smoke-filled restaurants and bars. I am not a smoker and never was. In the 70s, however, I was so accustomed to life amid ambient smoke that I truly didn’t notice it. The nose is an accommodating organ that way: after a while it stops informing you of whatever is constantly present. Lacking the zeal of the reformed, to this day I am less sensitive to tobacco smoke than the typical former smoker. Throughout the 70s, ashtrays were normal items on counters, coffee tables, and desks in homes and workplaces. It was the rare den, living room, dining room, or kitchen without at least one.

The decline of smoking accelerated in the 80s and 90s as tobacco smokers became first segregated and then banned altogether from work spaces, indoor public spaces, and bars. In the 90s automobiles without ash trays started to appear though my ’98 GMC pickup has one. As smokers became exiled to the out-of-doors in one venue after another, ash trays began to vanish from homes and offices as well. Apparently, younger folk no longer always recognize one when they see it. Recently a Millennial at my house for a get-together employed my keepsake ashtray for a candy dish. I thought it was a clever repurposing and quipped that it still was being used for something bad for your health. This evoked a puzzled response. She hadn’t recognized it as an ashtray, but thought it was a purpose-designed candy or hors d'oeuvres dish.

I suppose that’s a good thing. There is a country-western homage to classic vices from 1947 (about the same age as the ashtray) Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women. Millennials – especially the younger ones 18-24 – have cut back on all three. According to the consumer expenditure data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the year 2000 in inflation adjusted terms, spending on tobacco by Americans in this age-range has fallen by a third while spending on alcohol has cut in half. (Yet binge-drinking and non-automotive alcohol-related hospitalizations are up in the same group – figure that one out.) Tobacco sales have fallen only slightly in other age groups while alcohol sales to non-Millennials are up substantially. The Bureau doesn’t keep track of the final part of the song, but other studies show that Millennials are dating and having sex a good deal less than their elders did at their age. They’re eating their fruits and vegetables though: their spending on those is up well over 50% since 2000.

I have nothing against responsible bibulation of whiskey, and I have not a word to say against wild wild women either as an identity or as a companion of such. But in truth, I don’t much miss days and nights when Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I’m happy to have a new candy dish.

Sons of Pioneers – Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women (1947)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Over the Top

“Over the top” is always a chancy choice, as is appropriate for a phrase that originates in WW1 trench warfare. Occasionally it achieves some success though, and “some” is what it achieves in three recently visited popular entertainment products.

Empress (2017), a graphic novel by Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen
This retro space opera is the first 7 issues of the Empress comics collected as a hardcover. Those familiar with Mark Millar’s other work (e.g. Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service, among others) or with movies based on them should have some inkling what to expect here. Millar typically goes far over the top while eschewing out-and-out parody. The result is both campy and disturbing, two descriptions that don’t usually go together. Kick-Ass and its sequels, as examples, ramped up violence beyond what one ever expects to see in mainstream Western comics (and far beyond what appeared in the two anything-but-tame movies) while presenting the would-be superheroes as the unbalanced characters they would have to be. Wanted confirmed every nightmare you ever had that the world really is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. Kingsman: The Secret Service is Bond and beyond. The derring-do in Empress makes Flash Gordon look like a poser.

The time is 65,000,000 years ago when earth is one planet in an interstellar empire inhabited by an earlier version of humanity. (We aren’t given an evolutionary history of this ancient breed; presumably, evidence of these earth outposts was wiped out by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, though that event is not a part of Empress.) The empire is run by King Morax whose governing style makes Flash Gordon’s adversary more appropriately called Ming the Merciful. He is ruthless not just by inclination (though he does have that inclination) but as a matter of policy. He believes the only way to hold the scattered empire together is to respond to the slightest hint of defiance anywhere with overwhelming and savage reprisals in which “collateral damage” is the main point. It encourages the locals to eliminate signs of defiance themselves.

In her youth the beautiful Emporia was infatuated by the bad boy take-charge ways of Morax, but as his wife and the mother of his children she has a change of heart. Not least, she worries for the safety of her children whom, she knows, Morax won’t hesitate to execute if they give him the tiniest cause. Emporia takes her kids and flees with the help of Dane, her square-jawed, well-muscled, always superbly competent bodyguard. Morax is not amused. He is more concerned with Emporia’s public display of defiance than with the flight per se. He cannot be seen to take it sitting down. Is there more to Dane’s relationship with Emporia than just the dutiful loyalty of an honorable bodyguard? Emporia’s daddy-worshipping daughter thinks so, and she may be onto something.

Empress is not just 1930s-style space opera. It is space opera cranked up to 11. Immonen’s artwork suits the story perfectly. If you “get” and like Millar, you’ll like this.
** **

Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow
Dystopias are commonplace in science fiction, but this is a rarer beast. It is a utopia of sorts, or at least the beginnings of one. It brings to mind a line from an earlier time: “tune in, turn on, drop out.” If we take the “turn on” part of that 60s mantra to mean turn on tech instead of something psychedelic, it pretty well describes the philosophy of the main characters in Walkaway.

In near-future Canada, Hubert, Etc. (yes, the “Etc.” is part of the fellow’s name), Seth, Natalie (runaway daughter from ultra-rich family), and others have walked away from the “default” world of jobs, bills, and judges. The walkaways step outside the system. They no longer need it. Modern tech has made possible the end of scarcity, and inequality is maintained only by the elite rigging the economic system through corporate controlled governments. In voluntary ad hoc associations, walkaways occupy and repurpose abandoned factories where they hold “communist parties” with DJs and with 3D printers churning out goods to be given away for free. Hydroponic food is also to be given away. The techies among the walkaways are even on the verge of defeating death by digitally scanning brains; the hope is to be able one day to download them into back-up bodies. Naturally, the current elite of the default world are threatened by all this; their status vanishes if wealth and the whole notion of property become meaningless. They respond with lethal force, but can they stop the walkaway tide?

Cory Doctorow describes himself as emphatically a man of the Left, yet his voluntaristic anarcho-communist vision is weirdly similar (except for labels) to anarcho-capitalist post-scarcity utopias such as James Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear or Vernor Vinge’s post-Singularity fiction. This helps explain why Cory Doctorow is a winner of the libertarian Prometheus Award for science fiction. It’s the “anarcho” element that makes me count this utopia as over the top. My philosophical preferences are as anarchistic as anyone’s, but I think Mogadishu has settled the issue of whether those preferences are practical. They are not. In The Dark Knight Alfred tells Bruce that some men just want to watch the world burn. True enough. Some – he didn’t say but also true enough – just want to plant their boots on other people’s faces: domination for the hell of it, you understand. Armed gangs will fill the void in the absence of law.

Nonetheless, Doctorow’s vision is entertaining and much of it is plausible. We really are in the midst of another industrial revolution that will shake up society profoundly. Also, even if the world as a whole is unlikely to shed “default” power structures, as a matter of personal lifestyle “tune in, turn on, drop out” wasn’t bad advice (properly understood) in the 60s, and the reinterpreted version isn’t bad today.
** **

Atomic Blonde (2017)
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 Berlin in the final days of the Wall and the Cold War. It’s a particularly risky time for intelligence agencies and their contacts because their unsavory double-dealings could be exposed in the power shake-ups underway. The movie is structured as a backflash ala Murder My Sweet or DOA as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) recounts events in an interrogation room.

Lorraine is an ice queen who appropriately takes ice baths. She is sent to Berlin when a British agent is killed and a list of agents stolen from him. An East German trying to get to the West is the original source of the list and he has memorized it. Lorraine is to get the list, extract the East German, and find a double agent. But who in Berlin isn’t a double agent? Her contact in Berlin, David Percival (James MacAvoy) is particularly unreliable. Her task might not seem enough of a reason for the unrelenting violence and mayhem that follow, but it’s the only explanation we have.

The over the top stunts, car crashes, bullets, punches, and general kickass-ery rarely pause for a breath, and through it all Lorraine is an unstoppable force of nature. In a hypothetical matchup, Bond wouldn’t survive 30 seconds with her. One of the few nonviolent interludes is Lorraine’s lovemaking with a female French agent, who is playing a spy game of her own. So, who among the primary characters is really working for whom? It’s complicated, and at the end of the day we really don’t care. It’s hard to believe Lorraine cares. We are left to assume she likes the danger and mayhem for their own sake, and that one assignment is as good as another. Personal sharing is not her style, however, so that’s only a guess.

The camerawork and cinematic style are well suited to the subject matter, the stunts are impressive, and the fight choreography is extraordinary. And there is Charlize. For those reasons alone the movie is worth a look, which is good because there aren’t any other reasons. Don’t worry too much if you have trouble following the plot. The various intrigues and betrayals are just excuses for more violence, so the details aren’t important. Perhaps that’s the point.
** **

I assume that Blondie’s Atomic was not in the '80s soundtrack of Atomic Blonde because the song was released in 1979. Or maybe it wasn’t included because it was just too obvious. I don’t mind being too obvious, so:

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Broaching Poaching

In 1994 evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss published The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, which analyzes the topic in evolutionary terms. “Evolutionary psychology” is just the latest moniker for the longstanding argument that human behavioral predilections are pre-bent by prehistory – that they are a feature of the way the human brain and its affective subsystems are structured. Cf. Carl Jung regarding a newborn: “He is not born as a tabula rasa, he is merely born unconscious. But he brings with him systems that are organized and ready to function in a specifically human way, and these he owes to millions of years of human development.” This seems obvious, and it is clearly the case in all other species. Yet there always are those who argue against it except when it is inconvenient (e.g. regarding sexual preferences), and until recently they were dominant in academia. In my own estimation evolutionary psychology is a powerful tool for understanding human nature, but it’s not the whole story. (In fairness, few evolutionary psychologists say it is.) The tabula rasa folks are wrong, but they are not crazy. Included in that evolved heritage is a mental capacity to choose to act against our predilections. Freud and his successors tell us we do so at our cost (though the payoff might be worth it), but we can do it. The slate never can be wiped clean, but with effort it can be overwritten. Individual decisions and socialization do matter. Most of us don’t overwrite it most of the time, however, and even those who do find what lies beneath bleeding through to the top from time to time.

The book was controversial when first published but, in the decades since, cross-cultural studies involving thousands of people have reconfirmed most of its findings. Last year Buss released an updated version, which includes the results of studies from the past 20 years. It was my reading material yesterday. The title has a plural because each sex employs a variety of strategies depending on circumstances such as the sex ratio and economic conditions. There are, of course wide individual variations in romantic matters, but there are bell curves of behavior for each sex that overlap but have distinctly different centerlines. We all are descended from ancestors who were reproductively successful, so it is hardly surprising that their predilections are (by and large) ours. Most often, strategies for obtaining (and dumping) mates are employed without conscious forethought. The strategies are frequently anything but nice. Buss: “I would prefer that the competitive, conflictual, and manipulative aspects of human mating did not exist. But a scientist cannot wish away unpleasant findings.”

One small chapter in the book discusses mate poaching. For some reason it particularly struck a chord with readers. Articles about it (which ignore the rest of the book) have turned up regularly in popular magazines and periodicals ever since ‘94. Why this particular topic attracted so much interest probably has to do with our own experiences as real or potential poachers or poachees – or as the Significant Other of one. Desirable mates are always in short supply, so this tactic persists, abetted by the quirkily human tendency to believe that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” (The cliché is from Ars Amatoria, Ovid’s first century handbook on seduction: “Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris.”) 60% of men and 53% of women admit “to having attempted to lure someone else’s mate into a committed relationship.” 93% of men and 82% of women have been the targets of such a poaching attempt. (The percentages are reversed when the offer is just for short term sex.) The most time honored method is presenting oneself as more desirable than a rival while derogating the rival. Hardly anyone is thinking of reproductive success when engaging in or defending against this behavior. Often that’s the last thing they want. They are boosting self-esteem, playing a game, exercising control, “following their hearts,” or any of a multitude of motivations, but there is something more primal beneath all that. Contraception allows contemporary humans (unlike our ancestors) to separate sex and reproduction, but we still are apt to act and react as though they are linked.

So, the odds are someone at some time will make a play for your sweetie. The odds are you’ll make a play for someone at some point. The good news (or bad news, depending on your perspective) is that the attempts succeed only occasionally. When they do, from the standpoint of the one left behind it’s probably best to let them. Anyone that ready to wander off with a poacher is preferably somebody else’s problem.

Samantha Fish – Somebody’s Always Trying to Take My Baby Away
[My silhouette is not on camera, but I was there.]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Not to Reason Why

Action movies are not about character development or about reflecting the human condition. They are about chases and crashes and fists and flashing weapons and narrow escapes and razzle dazzle. A handful of exceptional films manage to combine the physical elements with the deeper stuff, but audiences neither demand nor expect it. Action movies are escapist fare. A sketchily drawn but likable character or two and some bare excuse for all the swashes and bucklers to follow are enough. In the past week I’ve sampled three of this year’s action hits – one in the theater and two on DVD. One can’t fault the action in any of them, but the excuses are bare indeed.

Baby Driver
The fantasy lives of adolescent and young men are intimately connected with popular music. Remarkable feats of derring-do go on in their heads during the guitar and drum solos. (I wouldn’t presume to guess if or how what goes on in young women’s heads differs.) Filmmakers know this, largely from firsthand experience, which not just accounts for a lot of soundtrack choices but also the quirks of many film characters – the old Iron Eagle movies and the recent Guardians of the Galaxy flicks come to mind. It’s a simple way to connect with the audience. In Baby Driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus (ringing in the ears) due to a childhood accident and he drowns it out with music (leaning heavily to rock) pretty much constantly – always when driving.

Baby is a wheel man. He had become one in consequence of the youthful mistake of stealing Doc’s car. Doc (Kevin Spacey) turned out to be a broodingly ruthless crime boss who saw Baby’s potential; as payback, Doc set him to work as an expert getaway driver in elaborate heists. Aside from being a criminal, Baby is a pleasant enough sort who looks after his aged disabled friend Joseph (C.J. Jones). Baby meets the waitress Debora (Lily James) who is pretty and sweet and…well… that’s about it. For no discernible reason she agrees to leave town with Baby, about whom she knows nothing, for the open road. Baby is cute, I suppose, but surely he is not the first cute guy Debora ever met. So why? Because the script says so. Besides, it fits the adolescent fantasy. The secondary love story between the crooks Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) actually is more comprehensible if even less wise: the two simply enjoy the thrill of sharing danger and violence. The course of true love never did run smooth, however, and the plans of Baby and Debora are put in jeopardy when Baby’s last job goes terribly wrong.

Taken purely as the escapist fare that it is, the movie is fun. It is well shot and the stunt driving is excellent. Don’t expect anything more from it though.

** **

John Wick: Chapter 2
For those who thought John Wick might have been a good movie if only there had been more violence (the eponymous character kills a mere 84 people), John Wick: Chapter 2 sets out to rectify that.

The reader may recall that retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) in the first movie is upset when the son of a Russian mobster kills his dog and steals his car. So, he singlehandedly wipes out the mob. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the timeline of which follows immediately after the ending of the first movie, an Italian mobster Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a marker and demands that John Wick assassinate his sister, the head of the family. When Wick refuses, Santino blows up his house with an RPG. Knowing what Wick did to the last mobster who annoyed him, why would he do such an amazingly stupid thing? Because the script calls for it.

Anyway, Wick first does the job for Santino because honor (!) requires it, but as we all know it is then bad news for Santino D'Antonio and for all of the mercenaries seeking the seven million dollars Santino puts on John Wick’s head.

I’m not unaware of the tongue-in-cheek nature of this movie, but nonetheless to my taste it was a 30-round clip too far: numbing rather than escapist. My reaction is probably idiosyncratic, though, since my companions (both sexes represented) loved it.

** **

Kong: Skull Island
This is a movie I would have loved as a kid: monsters and more monsters with no irritating romantic subplot to distract from the (did I mention them?) monsters. There is not much waiting for them either. They show up in the first half hour.

The time is 1973. Landsat images reveal the existence of an island in the eye of a permanent storm that previously had shrouded it from the outside world. A scientific team headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman) investigates. Transportation is provided by a heavily-armed helicopter squadron withdrawn from Vietnam and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They drop bombs all over the island in order to get seismic readings, which seriously angers the protector of the island and its indigenous people. You got it: the protector is King Kong. He rises up and swats every last chopper out of the sky.

Survivors of the crashes encounter the locals and a WW2 pilot (John C. Reilly) who was stranded on the island during the war. Conveniently, he can explain about Kong’s role as protector against the really terrible monsters who live below the surface. Packard, however, is determined to kill Kong. Why? Because the script calls for it. One gathers he is angry that Vietnam ended without a victory for his side and now he at least wants to kill a big gorilla. Um… yeah.

Most of the cast is there to get eaten by monsters, but a few should be mentioned. The photographer Mason (Brie Larson) shows that, unlike in previous iterations, a beautiful blonde woman can be on hand without anybody at all being attracted to her – not even Kong. Jing Tian’s most significant scene is in the after-credits (yes, there is a not-so-secret ending) when she reveals that there are other monsters in the world. James Conrad gets to play the competent mercenary. But it’s really not about the people. They are just there to run from (or foolishly try to kill) the monsters who are the real stars.

The movie is a fun romp and the fx are superb. If you are looking for anything other than an effects-packed action film, you won’t find it in the characters. There might be a metaphor or two, however, such as the imprudence of removing a monster who is keeping in check something worse. But primarily it’s about the chills and thrills, and it delivers enough of those.

Trailer: Baby Driver (2017)