31 July 2008

Shiny up, rubber down

600 miles later, I'm in Oakland, safe and sound and fully detached from San Diego. I'll try to write up road tales tomorrow.

Today's quote

From Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages:

Marriages go bad not when love fades — love can modulate into affection without driving two people apart — but when this understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength.

People who find this a chilling way to talk about one of our most treasured human bonds will object that “power struggle” is a failed circumstance into which relationships fall when love fails. (For some people it is impossible to discern the word power without adding the word struggle.) I would counter by pointing out the human tendency to invoke love at moments when we want to disguise transactions involving power.

Via DragonladyFlame, who quotes the book at much greater length.

30 July 2008

Not like Gandalf

Aeon, writing at RPG.net, brings up a puzzling point about wizards in swords & elves stories and games.

He tends to be older, as befits a professional student of magic, and spends most of his time reading ancient tomes and polishing his magical talents before, inexplicably, he chooses to suddenly drop out of college and wander around the world with killers and thieves.

29 July 2008

Don't read it, you'll go mad

Magickian Donald Tyson tells us The Truth About the Necronomicon, the best book H. P. Lovecraft never wrote.

Perceiving that so many gullible human beings were willing to believe that such a book as the Necronomicon existed, writers came along who wrote collections of quasi-occult gibberish and titled them the Necronomicon. There is nothing particularly wrong with this sort of harmless fun, provided those who buy these books realize that they are concoctions of the imagination. I have two of them in my own library.

One is The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names "edited" by George Hay and introduced by Colin Wilson, first published by Neville Spearman in 1978 — and I do mean “first published.”

The other is The Necronomicon, Edited with an Introduction by Simon, copyrighted in 1977 by Schlangekraft Inc., and published by Avon in 1980 — I am honored to own the first printing of the Avon edition.

It seems to me that at some time in the past I read a third version of the Necronomicon, but I cannot locate this book in my library and cannot remember how I may have come across it. Most likely I read it in a dream, which is not too unusual an occurrence for me — I've written numerous books in repeating dreams, and often find myself in strange libraries reading curious old texts while I lie asleep.

Other published versions of the Necronomicon exist. They numbered around half a dozen or so, the last time I checked. But I've only read the two in my library, and the one in my dream. Both of the published texts are of limited interest -- the dream text was somewhat better, as I recall.

By all means, purchase, read, study, memorize and take to heart any and all of the books sold in the stores with the title Necronomicon, but for heaven's sake remember as you do so that they are phonies, each and every one. The only genuine Necronomicon is the one you will read in your own dreams, as I did, and as Lovecraft did.

Tyson, of course, has written one of his own.

Iä! Iä! Cthulhu f'thang!

28 July 2008

Miracle fruit

I learn that there's this fruit that scrambles your taste receptors:
The berry rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.

The host was Franz Aliquo, 32, a lawyer who styles himself Supreme Commander (Supreme for short) when he’s presiding over what he calls “flavor tripping parties.” Mr. Aliquo greeted new arrivals and took their $15 entrance fees. In return, he handed each one a single berry from his jacket pocket.

“You pop it in your mouth and scrape the pulp off the seed, swirl it around and hold it in your mouth for about a minute,” he said. “Then you’re ready to go.” He ushered his guests to a table piled with citrus wedges, cheeses, Brussels sprouts, mustard, vinegars, pickles, dark beers, strawberries and cheap tequila, which Mr. Aliquo promised would now taste like top-shelf Patrón.

The miracle fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa and has been known to Westerners since the 18th century. The cause of the reaction is a protein called miraculin, which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids, according to a scientist who has studied the fruit, Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. Dr. Bartoshuk said she did not know of any dangers associated with eating miracle fruit.

During the 1970s, a ruling by the Food and Drug Administration dashed hopes that an extract of miraculin could be sold as a sugar substitute. In the absence of any plausible commercial application, the miracle fruit has acquired a bit of a cult following.

How cool is that? It is, of course, another reason to miss home.
Flavor Tripping is a ruthlessly-badass bastion of good taste. We throw parties w/ food. These parties are in NYC and SF. The parties are monkey loads of fun. These parties often include rare and exotic foods you ain’t gonna find in no dumpy bodega. The parties are run by a loose-knit-but-also-badass group of friends with much experience organizing large events in the states and abroad.
I may have to buy some of my own ...

27 July 2008

On the road again

Tomorrow morning the movers come for my things. I'll tidy up my flat, then stay with friends in San Diego tomorrow night. Tuesday morning, Betty and I hit the road, and I expect we'll make it to the Bay sometime on Thursday — rather than make the trip a chore, I plan to roll up Highway One most of the way.

Shiny side up, rubber side down all the way, I promise.

It may seem like I'm still connected to the interwebs, since I have ordered robots to make daily posts in my absence, but don't let this fool you. I expect I won't get a chance to log in at all during the trip, so when I don't email you back, it's not just because I'm lazy as usual.

It's good to be going home.

Stars

I'm generally cranky about contemporary American celebrity worship, but it's not that I don't get the appeal. The pleasure of following celebrities is the same as telling stories about old friends, catching people in a moment vividly reflective of their character. Which is why this is one of my favourite pictures ever, taken at the Grammy awards in 1975:

That's David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon. I happen to own a better print of this photograph, so I can tell you that Mr Garfunkel is wearing a tuxedo t-shirt and jeans, and if you squint you can see the Mr Lennon is wearing a large rhinestone pin on his jacket that reads “Elvis.”

That's them, all right.

I just stumbled across video from that evening: Lennon and Simon presenting the award for Record of the Year. If the photograph charms you the way it charms me, you might want to have a look.

26 July 2008

Shwag

Even having tried to avoid taking much of it, I'm awash in Comicon shwag. So far, my favourite is the business card of Lee Excelsior, CEO of H.U.N.T., which was given to me by a lovely young woman in a nice business suit.

So I checked out the website on the card — www.HuntHeadquarters.com — and was charmed by the little video message from Mr Exelsior. Well, mainly by who turns out to portray Mr Exelsior. I shoulda known.

Here I'm looking for a new gig and the H.U.N.T. Corporation is hiring; the job descriptions are evocative.

Physicist

Physicist with strong knowledge of theoretical physics. Should be prepared to operate at the bleeding edge of contemporary science and conduct in-depth discussions about the philosophical and ethical repercussions of causality.

Makes me regret not going for my PhD ....

25 July 2008

Comicon

Destiny has seen fit to put me at San Diego Comicon, “Celebrating the Popular Arts.” I have to be in SD the day after it ends, to meet with the movers. A friend could score me an exhibitor's pass. So who am I to argue?

It's huge, and strange.

Screw you if you think American culture has no love for art. I walked the floor with thousands of people hungry to buy art: coffee table books and posters and chapbooks and sculptures and paintings on little 6"x6" canvasses and the bristol boards comic book artists used to create the original art and more. Yeah, a lot of it is kitchy stuff connected to Big Media Properties like Batman and The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and so forth ... but if someone wants to put a little statue of Darth Vader in their living room because they love the story, then what could be more gloriously human than that? And what's really stunning is the profusion of art I've never heard of that obviously yearns to reach people the way those famous things do. Overwhelmingly derivative stuff, most of it, but if you tell me you don't have some love deep in your heart for heroes with swords and spaceships and vampires and superheroines then I'll call you a big fat liar.

But I also saw a lot of artists sitting at tables, doing sketches and signatures, whose work is a lot stranger than that. I chatted with Ted McKeever as I flipped through an awe-inspiring portfolio of his original drawings of crippled angels, which I read in comics twenty years ago. I saw the inhumanly prolific Sergio Aragones, whose funny little doodles you may remember crowding the margins of Mad Magazine, looking wry and happy and making the people around him laugh. I bought a little book from an artist—“the story of me attending my parents' divorce hearing”—because I liked her funny little painting of a cute, dyspeptic baby Galactus with a half-eaten planet on his lap. I saw Joe Linsner, creator of white trash speed metal goddess Dawn, looking as creepy and disreputable as he ought to.

And I'm not immune to Big Properties myself. There was an oddly realistic looking lifesize model of the Owlship, presumably built as a prop / set for the forthcoming film adaptation of Watchmen. The picture is sure to make me angry, but I confess that seeing an object of your imagination brought to life like that is nonetheless a thrill.

I bought a silly t-shirt at Alex “The Norman Rockwell of Superheroes” Ross' booth.

How could I resist that?

I saw John Barrowman, who plays Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood, glowing with delight that there were so many people lined up to tell him that they enjoy his work. He is exceedingly handsome. And shortly afterward, I saw a Playboy Playmate signing pictures of herself, looking strangely prim in her meticulous makeup and almost-a-dress, and was tickled that there wasn't nearly so long a line of people waiting to get a moment with her.

I saw Kevin Smith moderating a panel of women in the genre:

  • Pia Guerra, who draws Y: The Last Man, says Ampersand the monkey is based on her cat and easily her favourite part of the book to draw.
  • Gale Anne Hurd, who has written and produced a bunch of cool movies, said that she figured that the only way to raise money for a movie about a heroic waitress was to entitle it The Terminator.
  • Lucy Lawless was loopy and bantered with Kevin Smith outrageously. It turns out she's seriously down with geekkultur: she mis-heard the question what character from history would you most like to play? and answered, “Anything by Bendis.”
  • Jamie King turns out to be very tight with Mr Frank Miller. One wonders. Underneath his forbidding exterior, it turns out he's a warm, loving guy, she reports. Uh, okay. And when all the women on the panel said that The Bionic Woman was a major inspiration for their careers (!) she confessed that she was named after her!

Plus Mr Smith got a big round of applause when an audience member asked what everyone's favorite female hero was, and Smith said, “God.”

I'm going back today to heckle Zach Snyder and applaud Joss Whedon ....

24 July 2008

Concentration

The Working Memory and Attention Game is like Concentration (with the doubled pictures behind the cards) only much cooler. And apparently it may actually make you smarter:

In early 2008, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan presented evidence that a dual N-Back game that used both spatial and audible features could be used to enhance working memory and fluid intelligence (see Jaeggi et al, 2008). As the players achieved higher levels of difficulty in the game their score on an intelligence assessment test increased. The players each trained for around 25 minutes a day, and the more days they trained the more their fluid intelligence improved. Fluid intelligence is closely related to the ability to learn new cognitive tasks.

23 July 2008

In living memory

Apropos of a reader's comment about my recent post about John McCain's striking computer illiteracy, I offer ThingsYoungerThanMcCain.com, a blog listing things that have been invented in the Senator's lifetime.

Some of my favourites: Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times, duct tape, and the chocolate chip cookies.

22 July 2008

Paradox

Laura Miller at Salon tells a story from Rob Walker's book about consumers and corporate brands, Buying In:
Bike messengers in the Pacific Northwest made a Milwaukee beer the brew of choice in the indie-rock scene.
....
PBR was ... sure-footed: The brewer carefully cultivated its image among the indie crowd by taking great care not to cultivate its image: no ads on local radio, no celebrity endorsements (despite nibbles from Kid Rock) and certainly no TV. PBR's divisional marketing manager, cribbing tactics from Naomi Klein's anti-corporate manifesto, No Logo (full of “many good marketing ideas,” he told Walker!), worked to make PBR “always look and act the underdog.” He was so successful at retaining the brand's cachet (or anti-cachet) that one 28-year-old Oregonian whom Walker interviewed had a foot-square Pabst logo tattooed onto his back. “Pabst is part of my subculture,” the kid told the writer, pointing to the absence of Pabst advertising as evidence that “they're not insulting you.”

21 July 2008

Qualifications

It turns out that John McCain has great taste in movies but doesn't know how to use a computer. The folks at Yahoo! asked him, “Mac or PC?”
Neither. I'm a ... a ... illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all the assistance I can get.
Matthew Yglasias observes that this is no small thing.
Do you have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country? I think you might. If we had a president who didn't know how to drive a car, that would probably strike us as pretty odd. But I think you could plausibly claim that you don't necessarily have to have a driver's license in order to understand how automobiles shape the country. But that's because we assume that even someone who doesn't have a license has still been in cars sees highways, onramps and offramps, parking lots, quiet winding roads, overpasses, bridges, etc. If you hadn't done any of that stuff, then I think it really would be difficult to understand the implications of the technology.

But while people ride as passengers in cars all the time, I would imagine that someone who doesn't use a computer doesn't peer over the shoulder of his staff either.

20 July 2008

Maybe I should print up cards

Why have I received this card?

This card was given to you by an introvert. He gave it to you because he likes you, but is not feeling his best right now.

You might think that you should be trying to cheer him up, but since he is an introvert all of the friendly things you might try will only make him more tired and cranky. This is not because he does not like you. Really. In this state he doesn't want to talk to anybody. In fact the people he wants to avoid the most are the people he likes the most, since he doesn't want to be disagreeable toward them.

He is going to go into a cave now for a little while. This will make him happier and healthier. He recognizes that this sounds strange, but you're going to have to take his word for it. When he emerges, he will be very happy to see you.

Now go away.

19 July 2008

Dr Horrible

What? Joss Whedon explains:

All acts will stay up until midnight Sunday July 20th. Then they will vanish into the night, like a phantom (but not THE Phantom — that’s still playing. Like, everywhere.)

And now to answers a few Frequently (soon to be) Asked Questions:

1) Why, Joss? Why? Why now, why free, why us?

Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage. The forest creatures were all sad; the mushrooms did not dance, the elderberries gave no juice for the festival wines, and the Teamsters were kinda pissed. (They were very polite about it, though.) During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system.

Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.

The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap — but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first.

2) What happens when it goes away? Does it go to a happy farm for always like Fluffy did when mommy was crying and the neighbor kept washing his fender?

No, Dr horrible will live on. We intend to make it available for download soon after it’s published. This would be for a nominal fee, which we’re hoping people will embrace instead of getting all piratey. We have big dreams, people, and one of them is paying our crew ....

Strangely, the They Might Be Giants song “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” which features a character named “Mr Horrible” is not included, but it does have everything else you could hope for: romance, humour, danger, evil maniacal laughter, laundry, extremely cheap special effects, and yes, singing.

Check it out.

18 July 2008

Prog rock

Bob Rossney at Koax! Koax! Koax! introduces an amazing concert clip.

I had tears in my eyes watching this. It is so totally, brilliantly, unironically great. Okay, the backup singers are a little flat. The sound is muddy, and the image isn't all it could be. It doesn't matter.

They're kids. The keyboard player (yes! he's wearing a cape!) is better at playing glissandos than he is at shaving. They do this far better than you would believe possible, and they do it with a kind of love and enthusiasm that the band itself hasn't been able to muster for thirty years. I've watched it start to finish twice and it's just outstanding.

If you don't have any love for prog rock in your heart, skip the clip, but do at least go see all of what Mr Rossney has to say about it.

16 July 2008

Burned

PyroBoy rants about Paul Haggis, the guy who burned the Man early at Burning Man last year. He shows a lot more Buddha compassion than I would.

A guy claiming he was doing this for our benefit, who did no work to make things happen, just ruined everyone's experience. Why?

Well he claimed he had a reason. He claimed he was writing or had written a grand document to explain everything. He was going to be like a modern day Martin Luther with his 95 Theses that he was going to nail to Larry's door. I was intrigued by the idea Paul may have a better idea. I have felt that Burning Man is in bad need of a shake up, a reorganization. Not because of a leadership issue, so much as a need to see it evolve into something new and in many ways I feel the event has stagnated and could use a rejuvenation.

But it never came.

There's a lot more, much of it heartbreak about his disappointment with how Mr Addis is not alone in taking from Burning Man without giving something back.

15 July 2008

T

I don't really wear printed t-shirts, but I have to admit that Google was pretty smart when they offered me an ad for Atomic Tarantula's offerings in stylish, geeky-themed shirts.

14 July 2008

Alfred

Via Ray Ghanbari of Things So Impossible, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. makes an interesting observation about my favourite actor in the recent Batman Begins, whom I'm looking forward to seeing again in The Dark Knight.

Back to my disturbance with Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler. It had nothing to do with his competence, of course. Michael Caine is magnificent in everything he does. My concern was with the psychological havoc this casting might wreak. How would Caine adapt to butling in the quiet confines of Wayne Manor? Was the Joker not a feeble adversary for this man who had faced down a zillion freaked-out Zulus shrieking for his blood in South Africa, not to mention an assortment of armed villains in the U.K.? Would not this change of circumstance send any man — especially a member of the thespian tribe, who are uncertainly balanced at best! — reeling to the loony bin? I held my breath.

And soon enough exhaled, as I realized how foolish I'd been. Alfred the Butler had hardly taken up his duties as Wayne Manor factotum and keeper of his employer's stupendous secret before he was dashing into a burning mansion and heroically rescuing Bruce Wayne from a hideous death.

That's Alfred, the real secret of Batman's success.

Mr Semple has more interesting stuff to say about Batman, and it's worth clicking through to see it. He's worth listening to as he was the screenwriter for a bunch of things well worth your time, including The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Papillon ... and the pilot for the ’60s TV series Batman.

Magick

Frater Ro's anecdote My HGA Said It Was Fine, but Jesus Won't Let Me Curse Him is a tale of summoning spirits, ethical judgment, the function of the Holy Guardian Angel, and using violent video games as a meditation technique. It is as funny and illuminating as I hope I'm making it sound.

As Samuel L. Jackson would say, either you want to see that movie or you don't.

13 July 2008

Fearless

Emerging entirely unscathed from my recent misadventure—even my dress shirts survived!—I experienced a brief, puzzled euphoria that reminded me of one of my favourite films: Peter Wier's Fearless.

It's one of those pictures that's best seen without preconceptions, so I'll not tell you a thing about what happens. Instead, I'll tell you why I love it.

Through most of the picture, it seems like a beautiful mess. Interesting characters in a peculiar situation, played by terrific actors ... some of whom would later become a lot more famous. But where is it going?

It's going somewhere.

In fact, it has as satisfying a character-driven climax as you could hope for, that shows up by surprise. The two main characters are talking, and one of them makes an admission that just about breaks her. Which almost breaks the other character, until he realizes what he must do, what the entire film has been setting him up to do.

It's the essential structure of tragedy. We learn about the characters, and come to care about them. As we do, the wheels of the story turn until everyone is in place, and you realize what the climax will be just as it starts to happen. The artistic achievement is in creating the tension between your wish that the tragic ending won't come and your commitment to the narrative logic which tells you that it will.

Fearless produces the same tension in its climax, only the ending isn't tragic. Not exactly.

Sweet.

12 July 2008

Terror

To begin with, I should note that during the events that I am about to describe, no bloggers were harmed in any way.

Yesterday I set out to ride my motorbike, Betty, up from San Diego to Oakland. I need to move her, and it's a PITA to drain her fluids to truck her up, so as I have the time my plan was to take Highway 1 up the coast and enjoy the trip. Beautiful vistas, cheap motels, and the open road, here I come.

Instead, I had the most terrifying experience of my life ...

I packed clothes and sundries for the ride in my big messenger backpack, a suit for job interviews into my garment roll, and a few other things I'd need only when I arrived in the Bay Area into my shoulder bag. Geared up for the ride, with the backpack on, I locked the shoulder bag inside Betty's side case and bungee'd the garment roll onto my back seat as a driver waited impatiently for my parking spot.

I think the waiting driver may have inspired some unwise haste on my part.

Ten minutes later I'm zipping up Highway 805 at a cool 70 miles an hour when there's a horrible chunk noise from the back end of my bike, and I'm skidding. I wasn't sure what had happened at the time, but I now know that the rear wheel had locked up completely. This is every bit as bad a situation as it sounds.

Let us now praise the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and their excellent RiderCourse, which I took ten years ago. They teach a number of safety skills, not least how to handle a rear wheel skid. (Don't panic, don't let up the rear brake, don't try to steer, and don't try to drive out of it, just let yourself come to a stop.) You actually practice doing rear-wheel skids during the class.

At fifteen miles an hour.

As I skidded from 70 to 0 the reflexes they taught me kicked in and I kept her upright. I even managed to drift myself onto the dotted line between the #2 and #3 lanes so that I wasn't in the direct path of traffic.

Instead, I had two lanes of traffic to either side of me. I tried rocking the bike back and forth a bit, but that rear wheel was locked tight. I couldn't get her into neutral, and her engine had gone dead. The shoulders looked very, very far away.

I did have my phone with me, so I rang 911 and had a nice chat with the Highway Patrol dispatcher. She didn't quite seem to grok how I could be literally in the middle of the freeway, or why this would inspire me to ask her to speak a little louder, but she did tell me that a tow truck and a cop were on their way. She also helpfully advised me that my first concern at this time should be my own safety.

Good point; I resolved to get right on that project, as soon as I could think of something I could do about it. The skid had been the scariest thing that had ever happened to me, by far, but I had demoted it to the #2 position on the list by the time the dispatcher gave me that advice. Cars were zipping past a few inches to either side of me. I switched on hazard lighs and put my helmet back on; every little bit helps.

Fortunately, a passing motorist finally took pity on my plight and stopped behind me in one lane. With his assistance, I managed to walk my (very heavy!) girl over to the center divider. In the process, I solved the mystery of what had happened. My garment bag had somehow escaped its position on my back seat and taken residence in my rear wheel well. I had a suit, a couple of dress shirts, and a few of my favourite neckties wedged firmly between Betty's engine and rear wheel. It was looking like I might have to actually get the wheel removed to get them out.

My fault. $#*+!!

I had time to create some inventive new curses before the tow guy showed up with a big flatbed truck. He tilted the flatbed back so it lay with one edge against the tarmac and—being more enthusiastic and strong than I am—he proposed brute-forcing Betty's rear wheel an inch above the ground and pushing her up onto the flatbed. This worked, and he had me sitting on the bike to keep it upright when, unannounced, he pushed the button to bring the flatbed back to horizontal. This was a very peculiar sensation. Or maybe I was experiencing things particularly vividly at that point, for some reason.

By this time the CHP officer had finally showed. He asked me if I wanted to file a report. Uh, no thank you?

I climbed into the cab and the tow guy asked me where we were going. I decided on just going back to my apartment, where I could call for a mechanic to haul away my dead bike ... and shower off my adrenalin sweat.

We get to my place and repeat the flatbed tilt a second time. I rode my bike backward, downhill, with the locked rear wheel, inching down using the front brake and the tips of my toes. I think this must have been kind of scary, but by this time that was small potatoes.

Somehow this process dislodged my bag. My rear wheel turned again. The tow driver suggested that I should try to start my bike, but I was sure that this adventure must have fubar'd the engine.

I was wrong. Betty runs like a watch. The tow driver obviously thought I was nuts when I kissed her. I had a word with my mechanic, who assured me that she ought to be just fine, save for a bald spot on her rear tire. I can still ride her, but since I'm still planning on a five hundred mile ride, I'll have that tire replaced next week.

Oh, and though my garment bag is hors d'combat, my suit and shirts survived. Well, they could use a little pressing. Unbelievable.

Lessons learned:

  • Bikers:
    • Secure your gear carefully.
    • Take the MSF class, it could save your life.
  • It turns out I'm cool under fire.
  • I have mad biker skillz.
  • I see why some people are addicted to adrenalin-inspiring danger.
  • I am not one of those people.
  • I thought that after my parked car was wrecked by a drunkard and I was laid off from my job that the city of San Diego was spitting me out, but it seems that she ain't quite done with me yet.

Sestina

Dragonladyflame has become obsessed with “Subterranean Gnomesick Blues,” a dirty sestina about a gnome. She ends up writing to the author.
I now count myself among your most fervent supporters (in fact I have just finished painting your sestina upon my wall -- the fumes, they are delicious), and was hoping you could answer a few questions regarding your sestina output.
Hilarity ensues.

11 July 2008

Our little secret

There's this thing I really hate in romantic movies. The couple has their meet-cute ... fortune and attraction draw them together ... complications and their fears try to draw them apart ... and then the bit happens where they really fall for each other. Usually there’s this montage with some peppy little love song as they go to the park, hold hands, eat popcorn, make each other laugh, sit under a tree and talk, blah blah blah. And I’m there thinking, “Shut up you stupid love song, this is the interesting part! They're talking about something important to them. This is why they like each other. I want to hear what they're talking about!”

But no, you don't get to find out why they like each other. You’re just supposed to take that one on faith. I’m sure the theory is that this void allows the viewer to project themselves into the story. But I don't want that, I want to see their actual relationship.

I was thinking about this because of my recent post quoting Wil Wheaton about a great little scene in Almost Famous where we see William and Penny starting to fall for each other. One of the many triumphs of Almost Famous is that we see why William loves Penny, and we see why Penny loves William in her complicated way. A big part of why is that have in common that they're both living out the real love story of the film: love for rock ’n’ roll.

I think a lot of people don't get The Taming of the Shrew. I once went to a performance which started with the actors apologizing for the play. With that inauspicious beginning, they screwed up the whole thing. In particular, the last act was leaden and unfunny, since evidently they thought that suddenly Shakespeare had lost interest in irony.

He's William F#*%ing Shakespeare, people. If you don't see the irony, you're the one with the problem.

To get to how I think Shrew should be played, I think of Crash. Not Paul Haggis’ film about racism in America, but David Cronenberg's flawed, audacious film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel. Ballard wanted to write about people's peculiar sexual obsessions without getting lost in the reader’s reaction to the particularity of any practice or fetish, so he invented an obsession that no real person could have: being hot for automobile accidents.

In my favourite scene of the film, the car crash fetishists are driving down the freeway and come upon the aftermath of an accident. We see the characters peering out the window, then Cronenberg’s camera shows us the scene through their eyes: perfect glowing compositions of a bent bumper, broken safety glass on the tarmac, steel revealed by a scrape in the paint. They’re seeing something no one else sees, silently sharing this secret way of looking at the world. That’s love, the kind you share with a lover, or a close friend, or your family.

Now let me tell you about the day I first came to understand BDSM. It's not a dirty story, sorry—it happened when I was watching the Phil Donahue show as a teenager. (Yeah, really.) There was a panel of a few odd couples, talking about their relationships, but I only remember one couple: a dominatrix and her fella. She had a whole outfit with boots and corset et cetera, and the fella as wearing a t-shirt with the words “Property of Mistress Angela.” The shocked-yet-fascinated studio audience couldn't stop asking them questions.

Late in the show someone asked the fella, “You say you're her ‘slave,’ but what does that mean you actually do every day?” He responded, “I do whatever my Mistress commands me to do.” I noticed that before he answered, he glanced quickly at Mistress Angela and she gave a little nod. And seeing that, I realized that he had done it every time he spoke.

I expect I have a reader or two thinking, “Whoa. Hot.” Don't think I don’t know who you are.

The questioner on the show wasn’t happy with that answer, but I was. That little nod made it all clear. This whole thing was a game, for them! You could see they were having fun, and I imagined that one of the best parts for them was doing this little subtle communication right under the noses of the audience. This interview meant something very different for them than it did for anyone else.

His oblique answer was crystal clear to me, now. I could picture them at home: she stamps her booted foot and says imperiously, “Wash the dishes!” They have to be washed anyway, after all, so why not make it a game, animated by love? I could picture them at the grocery store together, dressed just like anybody else, but playing their secret game: she chooses all the items but he always handles the cart and takes things off the shelf. Nobody suspects a thing; they're playing their game in plain sight.

Most of that audience thought that what they were doing was creepy. But it wasn’t, it was sweet.

In that light: Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. In the first act, he's like one of those Elmore Leonard characters who succeeds in his adventures by being the only smart person in a world of morons. Petruchio is wisecracking right and left and nobody can keep up with him. He hatches his plan to win Katherina's dowry and then in Act II he meets her, she's not happy to meet him, and their dialogue suddenly gets very fast and witty. In the one production I've seen which I felt did understand the play, the actor playing Petruchio revealed it all with the look on his face during this bit:

Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.

Katharina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

P: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.

K: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.

P: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

K: In his tongue.

P: Whose tongue?

K: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

P: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

Spicy. But more importantly, that actor played it with a look of dawning wonder and joy. Here at last was a woman who could keep up with him, who could banter! He understands that everyone thinks her horrible, but it's because she's infuriated by their dullness.

Well, they are dullards. He understands. He’s in love.

Never mind the dowry, he wants something more important now. He wants for them to banter together, rather than against one another. Through the middle of the play he is cruel to Katharina as he insists on her agreeing to one absurdity after another: first that she wants to marry him, then that good food is tasteless, that a beautiful cap and gown are ugly, that the sun is the moon, that an old man is a young maiden.

Petruchio: Come on, i’ God's name; once more toward our father’s. Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

Katharina: The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

P: I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

K: I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

P: Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself, it shall be moon, or star, or what I list, or ere I journey to your father’s house. Go on, and fetch our horses back again. Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

Hortensio: Say as he says, or we shall never go.

K: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far, and be it moon, or sun, or what you please: an if you please to call it a rush-candle, henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

P: I say it is the moon.

K: I know it is the moon.

P: Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

K: Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun: but sun it is not, when you say it is not; and the moon changes even as your mind. What you will have it named, even that it is; and so it shall be so for Katharina.

Their arguments are fun, and funny, and Katharina gets to exercise her wit in them. And in that good production, the actress playing Katharina shows herself slowly realizing two other things about these fights. He always takes her side against anyone else in the play. And as soon as she starts to play along with his absurdities, he relents and gives her exactly what she wanted in the first place.

By Act V, they are allies:

Petruchio: Now, for my life, Hortensio fears his widow.

Widow: Then never trust me, if I be afear’d.

P: You are very sensible, and yet you miss my sense: I mean, Hortensio is afeard of you.

W: He that is giddy thinks the world turns round.

P: Roundly replied.

Katharina: Mistress, how mean you that?

W: Thus I conceive by him.

P: Conceives by me! How likes Hortensio that?

Hortensio: My widow says, thus she conceives her tale.

P: Very well mended. Kiss him for that, good widow.

K: ‘He that is giddy thinks the world turns round:’ I pray you, tell me what you meant by that.

W: Your husband, being troubled with a shrew, Measures my husband’s sorrow by his woe: And now you know my meaning.

K: A very mean meaning.

W: Right, I mean you.

K: And I am mean indeed, respecting you.

P: To her, Kate!

H: To her, widow!

P: A hundred marks, my Kate does put her down.

“You and me against the world, babe.” So when we reach the very end of the play, Petruchio and Katharina are playing a game together no one else can see.

Katharina, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women what duty they do owe their lords and husbands.

In that production I've been talking about, Petruchio and Katharina exchanged a little look between the two of them as he said that. “Kate, let’s play. Spin another absurdity with me for these blockheads.”

And what does she say?

Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.

Read it right and it’s the funniest part of the play.

They

At Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum says it's correct for a person to use my preferred genderless pronoun any time they want.
Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist “ideologues”, rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years.
Shakespeare used it! And Jane Austen!

So there!

10 July 2008

Jesse Helms

I didn't do an obit for Jesse Helms because I couldn't think of anything to say. But others have.

DeLong quotes Hilzoy ...

I haven't written anything about Jesse Helms' death, since I don't like speaking ill of the dead. However: every so often, conservatives wonder: why oh why do people think that the Republican party, and/or the conservative movement, is bigoted? I think that the conservative response to Helms' death ought to settle that debate once and for all.
... and then provides a bushel basket of quotes from Helms and the conservatives who eulogized him.

Can we have some conservatives I can respect, please?

09 July 2008

Scary smart

Brad DeLong makes an observation about American journalism and political culture that I also take as a general life lesson.
The number of mulligans that America's press corps gives John McCain is truly remarkable. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's because he doesn't threaten them—just as George W. Bush doesn't threaten them. By contrast, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and John Kerry and John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are scary-smart, in the way that my ex-boss Alicia Munnell once spoke of Lloyd Bentsen: “It only takes fifteen minutes before it is very clear why he is the Secretary of the Treasury and I am the Assistant Secretary.” That seems to provoke a reaction from many journalists—I am not sure why.

07 July 2008

Punk

Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces quotes Pete Townsend describing his first Sex Pistols show. I can't give you the exact quote because I've packed the book away, but I can get close. Townsend says that there he was, the crowd going berserk, the band going berserk, and he was suddenly shocked by the realization that this was actually happening.

In that spirit, I give you Patti Smith singing “You Light Up My Life” for an audience of children.

Bonus: I also have the Smiths on British kids' show Charlie's Bus.

Waterboarding

Iraq war hawk Christopher Hitchens describes in Vanity Fair having himself voluntarily waterboarded.

Believe Me, It's Torture

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.
....
As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
I think this is an opportune moment to gank an entire post from Matthew Yglasias.
I've seen lots of commentary on the revelation that Bush administration torture techniques have been modeled on the work of the ChiComs but not much specific focus on the fact that the main purpose of these Chinese torture techniques was to elicit false confessions. That's not very surprising as the main use of torture in interrogations has always been to elicit false confessions.

But still, to literally rip your techniques off from a study called “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War” requires some level of obliviousness I wasn't aware of. Or else maybe they were looking for false confessions?

Words fail.

06 July 2008

Saving throw

Infinite Perplexity as been thinking about the spankin' new 4th edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons in context.
The story of 1st level wizards thru the editions of DnD is a story of increasing competitiveness against the common housecat.

In first edition, the wizard had 1-4 hit points and a single spell. The housecat, on the other hand, had Armor Class 6, 1-5 hit points, a claw attack for 1-2, and a bite attack for 1. If the claw attack hits, the wizard is in for a nasty surprise: a follow-up rake attack with the rear claws that deals 1-2 damage if it hits.

The wizard has but one realistic chance to kill the housecat: win initiative on the first round and kill the cat with magic missile. The housecat, however, gains surprise on a roll of 1 thru 3 on a d6.

By third edition, the wizard's prospects had improved ...

As usual, if that doesn't make sense to you, never mind.

05 July 2008

Looking for a job

Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution posts:
Londenio, a loyal MR reader, asks:
I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.
I hope you have an expensive gold wedding band but otherwise start off by keeping your mouth shut. Find someone who will take care of you for a few days or weeks and then look for employment in the local church. Your marginal product is quite low, even once you have learned the local language. You might think that knowing economics, or perhaps quantum mechanics, will do you some good but in reality people won't even think your jokes are funny. Even if you can prove Euler's Theorem from memory no one will understand your notation. I hope you have a strong back and an up to date smallpox vaccination.
I am reassured to discover that I am not the only person in the world who has considered this question. Actually, my version of this fantasy usually puts me in Elizabethan England, so that with a little acclimation I'd be able to speak the language.

Even in that variation, Cowan is right that most of my modern knowledge is pretty useless. The first little while, it may be a struggle just to survive, though by virtue of being a well-nourished modern it would take me weeks to starve. But if I could find my feet, I'd try to sell my services as a physician: just knowing to wash my hands and boil water makes me the greatest physician in Europe.

Plus, you'd think that a cellphone is a useless brick in the Dark Ages, but you'd be wrong. Mine has a calculator function, which means that I'd be able to create the only accurate table of logarithms, roots, and trig functions in the world before the battery runs down, the dream that enabled Babbage to get funding for his failed difference engine.

There's lots of interesting discussion of the question in Mr Cowan's comments thread, if you like that sort of thing.

04 July 2008

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day in the United States.

Independence Day is the High Holy Day of American political identity. If you think about it, the Fourth of July is a strange choice of date. Consider the French equivalent, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille and thus the event which demonstrated that the French monarchy was over. By similar reasoning, we should be celebrating when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October, the battle of Lexington & Concord on 19 April, or (my favorite, with my soft spot for lefty activism) the Boston Tea Party on 13 December.

But we don't. We celebrate the day that a bunch of guys signed a piece of paper.

I've posted before about how the American veneration of documents in our political culture reflects our Enlightenment conception of the nation as a human creation, composed of ideas, rather than any essential volkish link from country to nation. Nowhere do we see this more strongly than in our choice of the Fourth of July, the day men signed the Declaration of Independence. The nation was born not when people used force of arms to secure the nation, either for the first time or the last time. Rather the nation was born when the idea of the nation was first named clearly.

It's easy to forget what a rhetorical achievement the Declaration really is. The world of 1776 was a world of kings, and finding a way to think and talk about a political order without kings was very, very hard.

Here's David Hume working to name a moral theory for equality, taking pains to say that there's nothing special about a king.

Whatever actually happens is comprehended in the general plan or intention of Providence; nor has the greatest and most lawful prince any more reason, upon that account, to plead a peculiar sacredness or inviolable authority, than an inferior magistrate, or even an usurper, or even a robber and a pirate.
Here's John Locke trying to talk about individual human rights, taking pains to say that this makes sense if you think about it carefully.
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.
Now here's Jefferson summing it up in the Declaration, asserting that these things are obvious givens.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
There you go. There's the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, state legitimacy, and revolutionary action, rolled up in two hundred and three words.

I'd like to say that you couldn't improve it by changing a single one of those words. It's very, very close. But—forgive me getting feminist for a moment—those two uses of the word “Men” really stick out. I'm prepared to forgive Jefferson that one; he was a man of his time. He knew that the principles he describes meant that America was engaged in a terrible evil in the form of slavery. Check out his rough draft of the Declaration in which this is the longest complaint against the King of England.

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
So I believe that Jefferson understood the radical implications of the idea that all people are equal, but didn't think to fit it into the language.

I gave you the best part, but hey, you really ought to take a few minutes in honor of the day and read the whole thing — it's really good stuff.


Bonus posts:

Me on Hollywood movie stars and liberal patriotism—plus those movie stars reading the Declaration

Brad DeLong and Don Herzog on Jefferson, rights, and Nature's God

Hilzoy on Abstract Words, Too Noble To Neglect

Fredrick Douglass on What is the 4th of July to a Slave?

03 July 2008

Metropolis

Fritz Lang's Metropolis is one of the most influential films of all time: so influential, that there's a sense in which everyone knows it, even though few people have watched it. So many films have borrowed from it, and little clips from it turn up in so many places, that seeing it for the first time is as much an experience of recognition as of discovery.

Strange for what is really a “lost” film. When it was originally made, it was the most expensive film in the history of the German film industry and ran 153 minutes. That version hasn't been seen since 1927: as the film was shown in various venues, in Germany and around the world, it was cut, and cut again. When it was released again in a the US, it was shown in a 107 minute version; by the end of the year, it was showing in Germany as an 87 minute film. The world is full of prints of Metropolis, all different. Faded, scratched, cut in different ways. There was the weird Georgio Moroder cut, colorized and 87 minutes long with a rock ’n’ roll score; there were versions in universities' film archives with bits and bobs of unique footage. It seemed we would never see the One True Metropolis.

Then just a few years ago Kino Video got us as close as anyone thought we would ever come. They rounded up every print they could find, digitized them, and combined them. Using original script notes, they put the scenes in the right sequence and added inter-titles describing lost scenes. Combining the data from multiple prints, they digitially removed decades of scratches and fading. It clocked in at 124 minutes.

I saw that version, and it was a revelation. The digital restoration made it look like it was shot yesterday, restoring the film's grandeur and ambition. More surprisingly, it changed the feel of the story. I had always thought of the film strictly as a visual achievement; the story was just hokey melodrama. With so much of the film brought back in, it became a grand, operatic melodrama, complex and strange.

Thomas Roche says:

With its deep psychosexual perversity and its profound influence on the genre of science fiction, Metropolis is a spike into the unconscious. Seeing it is like being introduced to Carl Jung at a fancy dress ball at the border crossing between Heaven and Hell. Watch Metropolis and you're glimpsing the mind of God.
I have Mr Roche to thank for some thrilling news. The lost scenes have been found. One print, in Argentina.
Martin Koerber, the restorer of the hitherto longest known version of Metropolis, who also examined the footage, said to ZEITmagazin: “No matter how bad the condition of the material may be, the original intention of the film, including all of its minor characters and subplots, is now once again tangible for the normal viewer. The rhythm of the film has been restored.”
I can't wait to see it.

02 July 2008

Loving the world

It's not often that I get the weird sensation of an advertisement scoring a direct hit on me as a target market, but the Discovery Channel has so got my number, summing up the thing—the dare-I-say spiritual thing—that animates my love for the natural sciences:




Yeah.

(And if you liked that, you will probably also dig a NASA propaganda video I blogged a while back.)

Smear

Drew Westen writing in The New Republic warns us about Republican smears of Barack Obama.

When I was doing focus groups with swing voters in the early winter, nearly half of every group we met with would either assert confidently or wonder aloud whether Obama was a Muslim or didn't believe in the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is going to get very, very bad. Any audacity is possible. Recall that George “AWOL” Bush defeated John “Silver Star” Kerry by portraying Kerry as a coward, and Republicans have been laying brick on dog-whistle appeals to racism since Nixon.

The Obama campaign has cooked up a Fight The Smears website, with the intent of debunking them as fast as they're created. I'm inclined to agree that the Gore and Kerry campaigns were hurt by not firing back quickly and forcefully enough against BS smears. But if you try to combat them as fast as Republicans cook ’em up, does it just turn into whack-a-mole?

I guess we'll see.

01 July 2008

Acting

Wil Wheaton on paying attention:

To be a good, believable actor, and to create characters the audience can invest some of their own emotion in, I have to be very connected to the other people in the scene. This is because, in real life, though we all have our own set of expectations and existing experiences, when we are deeply involved in something with another person (an argument, or a passionate romantic moment, for example) everything slows to bullet time, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. In an acting performance, the audience expects me to deliver that same level of real-life focus when its dramatic counterparts arrive. If I do something that doesn't match up with something the other actor has done, the audience's built-in radar, which they've developed through years of personal experience, tells them that something just isn't right there. It hits them like a bad smell, and they tune out, because the actors have been caught “acting.”

Also, when two actors trust each other completely, are totally committed to a scene, and are really focused on each other, wonderful moments reveal themselves that would otherwise be lost if we just relied upon what is given to us on the page.

One of my favorite examples of this is from Almost Famous. Kate Hudson, as Penny Lane, asks Patrick Fugit, as William Miller, if he'll go with her to Morocco.

When she asks him, they've been running around a park together, and it's clear to the audience that they're falling in love. It's really charming to watch, and unless you're deeply cynical, it's tough to not smile with them, recalling the first time you fell in love.




According to director Cameron Crowe, Patrick asked Kate to ask him again, because he'd been staring at her, and just got lost in that moment, so he missed his line. But he was still in the scene, so he asked her exactly the way he would have if it had been real. Kate stayed focused on him, stayed in the scene, and asked him again, so we have this incredibly wonderful moment of two people falling in love that probably has many of you running to Netflix to queue it up right now. If either one of them hadn't been completely focused on each other, that moment (which would have been impossible to script) never would have happened. If we'd caught them “acting,” it would have ruined that moment, and the whole movie would have suffered as a result.

Those moments are magic.

I'd also give Cameron Crowe a gold star for this one, seeing that this unscripted moment was better than what he'd originally had in mind.