Monday, November 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Next Day

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

“Foul words is but foul wind”

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

November 12 Recap: Corporal Punishers vs. Brandywine Roller Girls

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Something Old Something New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An earlier heyday of extreme sports

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Dawn of the Dread

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

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

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

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

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

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