Friday, March 31, 2017


Academics have a reputation for cluelessness about the “real” world. This is not always deserved, but few things better contribute to the stereotype than expressions of surprise by social scientists when their research reveals something utterly self-evident to the rest of us. Case in point: In the abstract of their article A Cleansing Fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity
published in Motivation and Emotion Zachary K. Rothschild Lucas A. Keefer write “we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity.” Counter-intuitive? Their research, as anyone outside academia could have told them, demonstrated that expressions of moral outrage commonly are self-serving. So people engage in social posturing? The hell you say!

Let us not overlook research about whether alcohol – still the world’s favorite mood-altering drug – really drowns sorrows. As reported in Livescience, “Harder and her colleagues guessed that people would report less anger or sadness after drinking, and more happiness a day after drinking. But the data showed the opposite.” A day after drinking? A day after? Of course they weren’t happy a day after. It’s called a hangover. Did these research people never drink? “Tomorrow” is the last thing on the minds of drunks. Alcohol is all about the now. Drinkers, sorrowful or otherwise, want to get high now, tomorrow be damned. And yes, drinking does make them feel better – not always, but more often than not. That is why people do it. It works while the buzz lasts, that is. Not the next day.

I’ve experienced both effects. I don’t very often (anymore) because I really don’t handle the day-afters as well as some people. This is something that was evident from my very first hangover, which was in my college dorm. 18 was legal drinking age back then, but by the standards of the day (or this day for that matter) that was a late start. As I unsteadily rushed down the hallway toward the bathroom while trying to hold back my stomach contents for the necessary distance, still playing on the stereo in back of me in my room was (no kidding) Melanie’s Leftover Wine, a song I cannot hear to this day without queasiness. Up until that moment, however, C2H6O had been quite enjoyable. I wish I could say one such lesson was enough. It wasn’t. “Enough” eventually did arrive in my life, but even now I see sense in Raymond Chandler’s opinion, “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won't let himself get snotty about it.”

equinox party
Besides, not everyone’s cost/benefit ledger is the same as mine. Winston Churchill: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Even if you’re not trying to win a war but just trying to distract oneself for an evening, the substance can have value. At an equinox party at the house last week, a majority of the 15 guests found value in it, and surely would have left early without it – or not arrived in the first place. (Yes, driving arrangements were appropriate.) Were they happy the next day? Well, that really wasn’t the point.

There are plenty of other surprises in the journals. Many social scientists are taken aback by evidence that in speed dating trials people (in the words of the Telegraph) “behave like stereotypical Neanderthals.” Regardless of what participants claim they want in a mate when filling out questionnaires (most give very PC answers, which is to say they engage in social posturing), in practice typically women still prefer men to be rich and men still prefer women to be pretty. (See What? Can this truly be? No, of course that’s not all they want in their mates, but as said Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “my goodness, doesn't it help?”

There is entertainment to be found in witnessing all this scholarly bafflement, of course. I’m eager to read reports by astonished researchers that most kids prefer pizza to kale.

The Speakeasy Three - When I Get Low, I Get High

Sunday, March 26, 2017


A comic and a flick for a quiet evening:

**** ****

Snotgirl by Bryan Lee O'Malley & Leslie Hung

Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley has created some of the most interesting comics of the 21st century, most notably the Scott Pilgrim series with a theme best summed up as “all the world’s a video game and all the men and women merely avatars.” (Side note: The surreal and charming 2010 movie adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, though a critical success, was seriously under-noticed by audiences.) His 2014 graphic novel Seconds (theme: be careful what you wish for) is also worth a read.

In Snotgirl Volume 1 (2017), O’Malley retains the tone of his earlier works but without the surreal or scifi elements – except to the extent modern life resembles scifi. Lottie Person is a 25-y.o. fashion blogger who has enough followers to make a living at it. Her always-fabulous always-chic online persona is very different from her actual allergy-ridden often-unkempt self. To promote her image Lottie impersonates her online self in public knowing full well that in our world of cell phone cameras any faux pas will end up online, too. She and her circle of friends all adapt styles tailored for social media presentation. Lottie’s real-world behavior in response to normal life stresses is often terrible, yet she retains enough human likability not to lose the reader. The nickname “Snotgirl” is given to her (affectionately? passive aggressively?) by Caroline, a genuinely cool girl. Lottie can’t quite remember if she physically attacked Caroline for that in a bar bathroom. There are O’Malley-like questions of what is real and what is fake – and if what is real counts as real if not captured by cell phone.

A comic book about a fashion blogger has some obvious pictorial creative challenges that illustrator Leslie Hung handles exceptionally well in her first major collaboration.

Thumbs firmly Up for this thoughtful and engaging comic.

**** ****

Coherence (2014)

There is remarkably little correlation between the size of a budget and the quality of a movie, particularly in the case of scifi movies. True, flashy fx can enhance a good script but they are wasted otherwise, as in, for example, the 1998 Godzilla. (Washington Post on another high budget scifi flick: “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.”) On the other hand a good script is enough to carry a movie even with a minimal budget, e.g. Safety Not Guaranteed. You just never know from the scale of the production. Coherence is a microbudget indie, but it works pretty well. The actors deserve much of the credit for this since a lot of the dialogue was impromptu.

We’ve seen the set-up before: a dinner party of long-time friends and frenemies. Hosted by Mike (Nicolas Brendan) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) at their suburban home, the guests have histories with each other, not all of them good. Mike is a TV actor whose career has expired. He says he was on Roswell, which is both an in-house joke and a portent: Nicolas Brendan in fact was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Xander), but there are actors who appeared on both of the contemporaneous shows, e.g. Julie Benz (Darla/Tupolski) and Jason Behr (Ford/Max). A chance casting decision easily could have landed someone on one instead of the other.

Coherence relies on the notion that there are parallel realities and that new ones are created whenever random chance produces two or more outcomes, so Schrödinger's famous cat is alive in one reality but dead in another. This is a seriously proposed idea in some circles, and it is one of which scifi authors are particularly fond.

A large comet is making an extraordinarily close pass of the earth the night of the dinner party. The power goes out at the house. Mike has a home generator, but there are no communications. The guests spot a nearby house with lights. (*Partial Spoiler* but the reader likely has guessed the plot twist already from the last paragraph.) Yes, as you may be suspecting, it is another version of their own house, and there is more than one. The comet somehow has broken down the boundaries among realities when directly overhead during its near approach. Can the party attendees trust all the other versions of themselves? Should they? For that matter, when they reconnoiter another house, do they return to the house they left? A dinner party that without the comet simply would have been strained and unpleasant instead turns nightmarish.

Thumbs up – not way up, but up.

Coherence Trailer

Monday, March 20, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

The equinox is back in in town, and this is the one that points to brighter days: the literal kind. The metaphorical sort remains to be seen.  In some ways brightness can be a modest virtue. At least until nature’s green camouflage returns in force, the scenery in the ever more abundant light is not altogether pretty.

As the residue of the final (I hope) snowstorm of March melts away in this part of the world, what lies beneath emerges. Much of the grounds on my property is a mess. The broken branches that litter the lawn can be tidied up without too much trouble, of course, while verdant regrowth soon will soften the appearance of shattered trees and brown patches. The human artifacts, however, do not regenerate themselves with exposure to a little water and sunlight; on the contrary they’ll just accelerate the decay. Retaining walls crumble, siding rots, shingles curl, and asphalt cracks. Inside my home appliances fail, carpets fray, and furniture sags. Entropy chuckles.

First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law: You can’t break even.

Entropy always wins in the end, but we do what we can to delay the inevitable. Fresh shingles, cedar siding, and Type S mortar await my hammer and trowel outside. The inside deterioration I’ll address to the extent my wallet allows.

The Second Law applies not just to human artifacts but to humans. Telomeres will tell. My mirror isn’t giving me the best of news these days, and spring won’t help much with that. Maybe a little. More fresh air and sunshine won’t hurt, but they won’t reverse the general trend. I still can see the 17-year-old in the face looking back at me from the mirror, but I doubt anyone else can see him.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” said not my generation’s Dylan but that other guy. I think not. I’d rather just take it in my totter instead. Entropy’s assault on my house and grounds, however, will feel my wrath. Well, my hammer and trowel anyway.

Kelly Osbourne – Entropy

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Double Header Derby Recap

The sport of roller derby was invented by Leo Seltzer in 1935, though the rules by which it is still played (with tweaks around the edges) weren’t settled until 1939. Originally it was a mixed gender sport with men and women alternating on the track. Despite winning loyal fans, the sport by the end of the 1970s had trouble staying commercial and the major professional teams folded. Though it never entirely disappeared, derby didn’t really regain traction until 2001 when it acquired new life in Texas with all-women’s teams – typically skated on flat tracks simply because they were more readily available. The revised format spread quickly to the rest of the country and internationally. Nowadays roller derby teams can be found almost everywhere. The fact that overwhelmingly they are smallish and local only adds to the enjoyment for local spectators. I’ve been following the nearby Morristown, NJ, teams for seven years, and still find it one of the most pleasant ways to spend a Saturday evening.

The 2017 season opened in Morristown last night for the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) with a double header. The evening started with a junior division (ages 8 – 17) bout: NJRD Small Stars vs. Gotham Girls Tiny Terrors. It was followed by an intraleague adult bout of the NJRD, which divided itself into two teams for the evening (Blue Bombers vs Betty Whites), largely for the purpose of introducing and putting to the test its expanded roster of skaters. (NJRD’s first interleague bout of the season will be with the Jersey Shore Roller Girls next month.)

In the juniors bout the NJRD girls took an early lead with jammers Alice in Horrorland and Mia Slam aided by well-coached well-coordinated blocking. Energetic defense by Gotham and effective jams, notably by Bea Sting and Juggernaut Jataun, kept the bout from turning into a rout. The second half began with NJRD ahead by more than 100 points, but the Gotham girls redoubled their efforts and steadily chipped away at the lead, Scary Poppins also doing her bit. They closed to within 50 points, but impressive NJRD defense made every point hard. In the final few minutes successful jams by the NJRD left Gotham no time to overtake them. The final score was 153-220 in favor of NJRD Small Stars.

The NJRD divided itself well for the adult match of Blue vs. White. The result was nailbiter of a bout that was undecided until the final minute. Defense for both teams was extraordinarily aggressive, but especially for White, with Shorty Ounce frequently in the path of the Blue jammer. This was counterbalanced, though, by a slight edge in jammers by Blue, notably Marie Furie, Tiger Munition, and veteran skater Tuff Crust Pizza – plus a strategic use of star passes. The score, accordingly, seldom was more than a few points apart, and the first half ended with the board reading 104-109 in favor of White. White’s aggressive blocking and solid jams by skaters including Ferocia Rose, Malicen Wonderland, and Fizzing Whizbee built up a sizable lead through most of the second half, but it disappeared in single 24 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. With 5 minutes remaining the game tilted toward Blue. Pizza puy the last points on the board as the clock ran out, with a final score of 188-174 in favor of Blue.

I’m looking forward to what they can do as a united team against Jersey Shore. They seem ready.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On the Move

I move a couple times per year – not myself but other people. Not counting college dorm rooms, I move my own place of residence only about once per decade, and even then only if you include a move from one house to another on the same property: in the 80s I bought a property with two cottages on it and in the 90s moved from the smaller to the larger. This is pretty static by modern standards. Moreover, most of the moves have been local. I live 10 miles from where I was born, 4 from where I went to high school, and 3 from the family cemetery section where there’s a vacancy. (I wasn’t involved in that purchase, but there it is.) Nonetheless, my friends always remember who has a truck and an as yet uninjured back, so rarely does a year go by without putting my GMC and my latissimi dorsi to use in a move: most recently a week ago.

I usually get tagged for the large heavy pieces. I actually prefer these, for even though they are…well…large and heavy they are therefore few in number so the endeavor is over soon. (Friends who have lots of large heavy objects hire professional movers; no one yet has made an utterly unreasonable request for my help.) I invent excuses to avoid the tedious packing and moving of the usual small sundries from water glasses to sweat shirts. The one occasion when I regretted handling only the big items was when a friend (you know who you are) moved into a fourth floor walk-up. We carried up the steps a foldout couch that to account for the weight must have been made of uranium.

The few times I have moved on my own behalf have convinced me not to do it again without necessity. I’ll stay where I am for as many years as I can, but the cost – particularly NJ’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes – of retaining the family home as I presently do is unsustainable in the long run. So, necessity eventually will arrive, assuming John Maynard Keynes’ remark about the long run isn’t applicable first. I’m not looking forward to it – either possibility actually, though one of them is less work. The most daunting task will be disposing in some way of all the stuff that won’t make the move with me. The barn alone, despite my ongoing multiyear effort to diminish its contents, still abounds (my dad was a builder) with such sundries as mismatched trim, shingles, random hardware, window screens that fit no windows, mismatched cabinets, and (yes, really) a kitchen sink.

I had a foretaste of this kind of effort when I closed my business office a couple years ago: the removal of desks, copiers, steel file cabinets, and so on. I MacGyvered a makeshift block and tackle to get the heaviest cabinets down from the second floor. It’s not something I wish to repeat or that I’d recommend for the joy of it.

A track from a George Thorogood cd that was playing on my stereo earlier today not only inspired this blog but might contain good advice for my next home. (The song originally was Hank Williams I believe.) So long as it has wifi, a doghouse might not be so bad. It’s cozy and the move after that would be simple indeed.

Monday, March 6, 2017

All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy

Ok, not really. But it is a less silly statement than one might think. I’m choosing this moment for it because a few days from now (March 10) marks the 20th anniversary of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Writer/director Joss Whedon grew up with outer-office Hollywood connections a couple of generations deep. His grandfather, for example, wrote for The Donna Reed Show. This background helped to get a hearing and a green light for Whedon’s youthful screenplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), but wasn’t enough to give him the director’s chair or creative control over the production. The result, much to his distress, was a far goofier movie than he intended – the line between campy and goofy may be fuzzy but it is real. Nonetheless, it was popular enough that the WB network offered to let Joss try his hand at a TV series based on it in which he would be in full control. Joss had his chance to mix horror, comedy, romance, dry wit, and melodrama (plus, yes, a little goofiness) as he liked, which is to say in a less broad manner than in the film. The combination worked. It worked for seven seasons and generated a spinoff series (Angel) that lasted for five.

I won’t go into lengthy detail about why this is a show adults can enjoy. The vlogger whose video is posted below does this most effectively. I cannot find anything in his argument with which to take issue. In brief, however, the primary point is that the monsters, demons, and vampires in the show are not just what they seem to be. They are metaphors for the troubles and demons we all face in life, particularly while growing up. Facing them, in fact, is how we grow up. Nor does Whedon lapse into a simpleminded morality. All his characters are more complex than that. There isn’t a single major character in the series who at some point doesn’t respond to some temptation or provocation by acting against type, as all of us do sometimes. After all, fundamentally good people can be destructive – even murderous – if triggered in the right way while villains can be kind. Moreover, villains can be truthful. Nearly always Whedon puts the most important (and therefore uncomfortable) truths into the mouths of his villainstruths politely avoided by the “good guys.” Yet, he tells us there are such things as moral choices. Lest all that begins to sound too heavy, did I mention the show also is both fun and funny?

I didn’t watch Buffy during its original 1997-2003 run. Those particular years were filled with my own troubles (a failed marriage, financial woes, loss of my parents, and much else) sucking the life out of me as effectually as any vampire. I didn’t need to seek out any more horror on TV and film. Besides, the movie had struck me as so-so, and I wasn’t inclined to give any of my then sparse downtime to a so-so show apparently aimed at teenagers. Only several years after the series ended did a smattering of re-runs convince me that I had prejudged the series wrongly. I have all seven seasons on DVD and recommend them. There is also a comic book series that continues to this day, though the first volume (the so-called Season 8) written by Joss Whedon is the one that ties up loose ends of the TV series. 

While he does enjoy dry wit, Whedon doesn’t ever rely on this alone. In Buffy and in his later scripts and movies he is never afraid to be sentimental, darkly humorous, grief-stricken, joyful, and passionate. His work is better for it. In a time of cynicism about everything except (regrettably) politics, in which true believers abound, it is well to be reminded that those adjectives are not properly just reserved for adolescents. They are human. Thanks for the reminder, Buff.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Double Occupancy

I always find it entertaining to watch a movie at home with a Millennial or GenZ. (What’s not to like about the term “Generation Z” and its variants for the latest wave of HS students and younger, by the way? It sounds like the zombie apocalypse.) There are at least three electronic devices competing for their attention: the TV, an open laptop with a game in progress, and a smart phone open to the net and continually buzzing as new texts arrive. There might even be music-emitting earphones around the neck that slide up onto the ears for any dull spots in film, game, or text.

I don’t multitask as well as that. I like to think I “focus better than that,” but in truth it’s a mix of both. Some of this is generational, but a lot of it is surely a personal trait: I just am distracted easily. I don’t even like the car radio to play when I’m coping with heavy traffic, though the radio is enjoyable on an open road. In high school and college I sometimes read and studied with the stereo playing, but not loudly and not any old record. I could deal with the Grateful Dead as background music, for example, but not Jimi Hendrix. Jimi would pull my attention away from the books. Nowadays I generally prefer full quiet when reading, but there are rare exceptions. The exceptions usually are an accident.

A recent exception involved thumbing through David Hume’s Essays while Garbage played on the stereo. I meant no commentary by that particular combination. The Garbage CD just happened to be playing when I picked up the book, got caught up in it, and then was too lazy to walk across the room to turn off the music. (Laziness has had a profound impact on my life in ways both large and small.) On this occasion the effect was pleasant.

After the bromidic Seneca (See earlier blog Polonius on the Tiber), the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a refreshing breath of breezy 18th century air. Hume is fashionable in philosophic circles at the moment, probably because of his religious skepticism. Yet his more important message was religious toleration – and political toleration. Hume lived in fractious times, as we do today, and his assessment of political factions sounds all too modern:

“Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable… On the other hand, the partizans of the minister make his panegyric run as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration.”

So too.

The source of his tolerance (other than his personal disposition) was his belief in the limits of reason. Unlike Descartes and most of the ancient philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason, Hume regarded reason as more of a tool than an answer. He saw all too clearly that people – especially in political, religious, and moral matters – believe something first and then employ reason to justify their belief. When negative proofs are impossible – as they usually are – most people are impervious to reasoned arguments. They can rationalize right back at you. They must be persuaded, if at all, by appealing to their sympathies – to their emotions. They will see logic in a new belief only afterwards. Recognition of this human foible made Hume a skeptic with regard to all beliefs including his own. It’s hard to be both a self-skeptic and a zealot.

As for popular music, the sounds from one’s youth are notoriously dear to the heart, which in my case primarily means basic blues-based rock-and-roll and its variants. Rarely do the five receptacles in my CD tray not contain at least one disc that meets the description, whether a classic band such as the Animals or a contemporary one such as Dorothy. But I do play other artists and genres originating both before and after my teen years. Bands from the ‘90s (high tide for GenXers) in particular occupy an outsized quantity of space on my CD shelf: Offspring, Radiohead, Guns’n’Roses, Soundgarden, etc. One experimental band I liked at the time was Garbage, which deliberately mixed genres so thoroughly that it really couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Lead singer (and Hume’s fellow Scot) Shirley Manson once called it sci-fi pop, but she didn’t stick with the description. Whatever it is, it combines ‘50s Beat coffee house-style lyrics with synthetic sounds and traditional instruments to interesting effect.

Garbage has disbanded and reformed several times over the years, but is currently together and performing. Their most recent album, the 2016 Strange Little Birds, is worth a listen (one track posted below) and served as the background music mentioned above.

Thumbs up to book and band. Though the two worked well together for me on this occasion, I think that is because neither was new to me. If encountering either for the first time, I recommend them in sequence, not in concert.

Garbage – Magnetized