October 7, 2016

Up where the air is clear

Your Humble Blogger likes to fly kites. I haven’t really written about it here in this Tohu Bohu, but for the last few years, whenever the weather is nice, I take a kite out for a bit during my lunch hour.

I work on a college campus, so there are occasionally Young Persons playing Frisbee or catch, or just lying on the grass catching the rays of the sun. The other day, there was another kite-flyer—the first I have seen here—and of course I immediately fouled her string. Not a big deal. We untangled and sent ’em up again. It was nice to see someone else with a kite string.

I gather the impression that people find kite-flying intimidating, something that is difficult to learn to do. I assure you, Gentle Reader, it is not. There is advanced skill to pick up, after a bit, but for the most part, it’s a kite and a string and a bit of breeze. Also to some extent there’s the equipment factor—if you don’t have a kite, you can’t fly a kite, and while kites are scarcely difficult or expensive to purchase, still at the moment when there is a nice day and an open field, you either have one in your possession or you do not. I make sure that I do.

Today was a almost perfect day, to my own particular taste: sunny and mild, with a light and inconsistent breeze. I’d slightly prefer some clouds, so I don’t have to squint, but this was awfully good. Also, truly perfect kite-flying weather is less interesting. If you get a good stiff wind in one consistent direction, it’s perfect kite-flying weather, so you let go of the kite, you hang on to the string. Eventually, you haul it back in. It’s pretty, mind you, a kite way up there in the sky. Not bad, not bad at all. But a little boring. Give me a day with a light and inconsistent breeze, and then…

First of all, there’s the waiting. You stand on the hill, holding the kite, limp on its string, listening and feeling for the breeze to kick up a little bit. Waiting for the kite to wiggle in your hand. It’ll take a minute or two. You’ll watch the trees for movement in the branches. From my spot, I watch the campus flags (University, State and National) for telltale flutters. Possibly I walk in a slow circle to see if the air feels differently on my face from a different angle. Honestly, that part of it, five minutes of just standing on in the grass focusing my attention on the air, is worth getting the kite out for, even if I don’t get the thing airborne.

With luck, though, a bit of wind kicks up, and off and up goes the kite. The string has to go out fast, but not evenly—it depends on the kite, of course, but most of my kites need to be reined in a bit to gain height, and then let out when the tension pulls again. The light wind will probably try to push the kite away, but you’ll want it up, to try to catch something above the height of the trees and the buildings. It may not happen on the first try; likely enough it’ll go five feet up and fifteen sideways and then drift to the ground, and you will walk over and wind up the string and start again. Not so terrible. Then more waiting, and then maybe, again, with a little bit of luck, another bit of wind kicks up and off and up goes the kite.

Once you get the thing up a good ways, you’ve got some activity. As it goes up, it will move out of one stream of air and into another, changing directions, drifting. As the tension goes, you reel the string back in, perhaps sharply to try to jerk the kite up into another stream, or perhaps in long steady pulls, to bring the kite further down and bring the tension back. Winding up the string a bit as you go. And then when it gets a good pull again, letting it out, smoothly. I have tried some of the fancier spools, but I find I’m happiest with the old-fashioned two handled kind. Of course, I’m not using a fancy kite. Since I like flying in hillside breezes rather than shoreline gales, I’m not using the more serious kites, and I haven’t invested in two-string kites for doing tricks (or battles). Just an ordinary spool without a crank. Good for the wrists, I suppose. When the kite is properly up, I like to be always either letting out string or reeling in string; this may be good technique or I may be just too fidgety to let the wind do the work.

Gentle Readers may have noticed that I’m not writing about Isaiah this year, during these Days of Awe. I haven’t put together any sort of essay for these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I haven’t had any particular thoughts about it. I generally find my piety in the Scripture rather than in Nature—I mean, nothing against Nature, which is awe-inspiring and whatnot, but Your Humble Blogger feels closest to the Divine when studying a text, not when contemplating a sunset. I choose to spend my time indoors, most often. We read in Pirke Avot 3:9:

Rabbi Jacob said: If a man was walking by the way and studying and he ceased his study and said, ’How fine is this tree!’ or ’How fine is this ploughed field!’ the Scripture reckons it to him as though he was guilty against his own soul.

Which, you know, is just a little bit crazy, honestly, but does somewhat suit my own inclination. Why the kite-flying then?

I can’t say. I do love the preposterous physics of it: I have a toy that’s pretty much a sheet of nylon and two sticks, which I control by means of this fifty-foot-long string leading up into the sky. I honestly like being the guy who flies kites at lunchtime, and I hope I make a few people smile when they see the kite. I think, also, that I like the kind of focus and attention it requires, which is very different than the other kinds of things I do. A thing to pay attention to that isn’t work, isn’t family, isn’t terribly important or interesting, that has no consequences. Just the movement of the air.

I hope, perhaps, in the coming year to return to Scripture study, either to pick up where I left off in the second chapter of Ezekiel or to begin some new project. Perhaps I stopped to say How fine is this breeze! and will return to studying. I don’t feel comfortable promising it (kol nidre, all my vows, something to that) but I will say out loud that I hope to. I am waiting for the wind to catch, and if it doesn’t happen, well, the waiting is good, too.

As I’m waiting, I’ll wish you and all of us a good year, a happy year, a healthy year. A year of reconciliation and redemption and reclamation; a year of peace and joy and love; a year of growth and birth and hope. Shana Tovah, y’all. Go fly a kite.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 6, 2016

Lady Blueskirt's Seventh Husband

A friend of mine who teaches a course we can more or less call Gender in Fairy Tales and Comic Books reported that one of her students felt bad for Bluebeard, saying that maybe his wives had done something wrong. The good news is that the rest of the class rolled their eyes, so that’s all right. The other good news was someone on-line suggesting that if the story were about Pirate Lady Blueskirt, the dudebro in question would be horrified by how such a crazy bitch killed all those men. And now I want a Pirate Lady Blueskirt story.

Specifically, I want a Pirate Lady Blueskirt story where her seventh husband discovers that his bride has killed six ex-husbands who were totally asking to be murdered, what do you expect when they dress like that, besides, they totally went out and got themselves murdered every weekend, you know what kind of guys we’re talking about here. My Perfect Non-Reader (now fifteen and dealing with such issues and such guys) suggests that Blueskirt goes from village to village, marrying and subsequently killing dudebros in order to save the village maidens from creepers and date rape. At any rate, I want the story of Blueskirt and her seventh husband, who everybody treats just like women to attempt to report assault in real life. I guess the question is whether you want to play it as an up-to-the-minute legal story, with the judge rubbing her thighs as the defense attorneys detail the husband’s sexual history and so forth, or whether you want to play it in a charming French village, with the charming villagers all turning out to be very different than you first imagine.

Either way, I think Kate Beckinsale as Pirate Lady Blueskirt. That is open to argument, though—Eileen Atkins is the ominous housekeeper is not. Tyne Daley should show up in a cameo as the cop (or, in the village version, the sheriff or local magistrate) who doesn’t believe the husband’s story. Jane Curtin is his mother, who also doesn’t believe his story (I love Jane Curtin, and I think it’s a great role for her, but certainly Whoopi Goldberg would nail the part as well). I think there’s a role for Jim Broadbent somewhere, maybe as the Pirate Lady Blueskirt’s doddery First Mate who turns out to be an incredibly fierce killing machine (possibly even literally a machine) or maybe as the police chief whose initial kindly sympathy gets sterner and sterner as he questions the husband and finds that he has done everything wrong and is clearly to blame for getting himself into such a situation.

I’m inclined to Tom Hollander as the husband. I think he could pull of a very funny combination of arrogance and bewilderment. I’m not absolutely sure about that—if you are going to have, as I think you ought to have, flashbacks of Blueskirt killing each of her first six husbands, then we may want someone who would be funnier to see in that multiplicity of roles. Also, of course, Tom Hollander is a middle-aged guy, which I think would be funny, too, but then if you want to cast a younger comic actor, you’re going to have to do it without my help, I’m afraid. I don’t know who could plausibly play eighteen and be funny.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 26, 2016

You can be the shoe, I'll be the hat.

Your Humble Blogger has been playing a lot of Monopoly against the computer lately, and it has caused me to change my mind about some aspects of the game and its MFQ. Specifically, I am arguing for a trade-for-two norm, which I will describe below, but which you probably can figure out just from the phrase.

Yes, I know, you hate Monopoly. Move along, then, this is not the board game you’re looking for. I happen to like the game. It’s a deeply flawed game, with many playability problems, but it’s also a fun and easy game with several different possible winning strategies, and of course it’s one of the Great American Boardgames. It would be a shame—it is a shame—that its flaws have relegated it to the bottom of the boardgame pile, and its strengths are forgotten.

The main problem with the game, of course, is its length. It’s true: it can go on far too long. It’s not just that it can be a long game (there are many excellent games that sometimes require hours to play), it’s that often it gets to a point where there will clearly be no further interesting strategic or tactical decisions, but the game will go on for a long time yet, playing out those decisions that have already been made. The beginning of Monopoly is fun, when everybody is still hoping to get the red ones, and a pair of railroads commands a pretty decent rental, and the chance card that puts you on Boardwalk is whimsical, rather than devastating. The middle of Monopoly is (in my opinion) fun, when people are buying a few houses and trying to judge whether to keep a few hundred dollars on hand, just in case. The auctions are fun (or should be, if people aren’t being gratuitously nasty, and if they are, then no board game will be fun) and the suspense of who will land on the last unsold properties ramps up. Then the fun rapidly diminishes.

Now, playing against the computer, I have found that (for the official Hasbro Monopoly app) the computer players have a bias toward making trades. Not that they will make trades that actively disadvantage them, but they make trades I wouldn’t make. And as a result, we get monopolies earlier, houses earlier, even hotels earlier. And the game is more fun. The MFQ of the game is higher. It’s a better game. Which is the point of this note: Monopoly is a better game if people make more trades earlier.

I don’t mean that anyone should make a trade that leaves them worse than she was before. That’s not fun, not for anyone. But if the Shoe is offering a trade to the Flatiron, that trade may improve the Flatiron’s situation only a little and the Shoe a lot, or both about the same, or the Shoe a little and the Flatiron a lot. For most of my life, I would only accept that trade if I were getting the better end of the deal, or if the deal was very very close. After all, if I help the Shoe a lot, even if I help myself a bit, I’m essentially increasing the odds of Shoe winning, which necessarily decreases the combined odds of Flatiron, Racecar and Thimble winning, and, well, I’m Flatiron. Why would I do that? And I’ll never do a trade that gives Shoe a monopoly unless it gives me a monopoly as well. That’s just sense. But I have also been unwilling to make a trade that will give Shoe two-out-of-three to a monopoly with the third still unpurchased. That means that in a game with four or five players, it’s awfully hard for anybody to get a monopoly, ever. And the slower that part is, the longer the game is, and the longer the game is, the lower the MFQ.

So here’s my suggestion: trade for two. Early in the game, there should be a bias in favor of trading so that the first two properties of a monopoly wind up in the same player’s hand. On the very first go-round of the board, when the Hat gets St. Charles and Illinois, and the Battleship gets Virginia and Tennessee, they should already trade so that one of them has St. Charles and Virginia and the other has Illinois and Tennessee. And perhaps some money, or a promise of future rental waivers or whatever; they should of course negotiate. But that trade should take place if possible before States gets purchased.

And if everyone believes in this, Hat (let’s say) winding up with Illinois and Tennessee isn’t screwed, because Thimble will land on Kentucky and will trade him New York, or whatever. The more that the players can get two-out-of-three early in the game, the more likely it is that they will be able to make mutually beneficial trades in the middle part of the game, and then there will be monopolies and houses and so forth. And yes, somebody will get crushed and be out of the game very early, but my own feeling is that it’s better with this sort of game to have the crushee out of the game quickly and then the rest of the game resolve fairly quickly and entertainingly than to have the crushee limp along for half an hour of increasing despair, followed by an hour of endgame between the final two players.

However, if five people are playing and only three of them agree to the trade-for-two norm, Hat having Illinois and Tennessee is in no better position than he was before the trade, really, since Thimble will land on Kentucky and hang on to it for ages and ages, hoping for more leverage and a better trade, and, well, all the things that people dislike about Monopoly probably happen. Like a lot of social norms, this works only if everybody relies on everybody else adhering to it. Like stop signs, you know? Only without the option of police enforcement, which just for the record I do not endorse in the case of Monopoly norms.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 11, 2016

Open and yet somehow opaque

In the late seventies, when David Bowie was a huge pop star, did I know he was bisexual?

So, here’s the thing: if you asked a DJ on a pop radio station in Phoenix, Arizona in 1975 or 1978 whether he would play queer music—as we might have thought of it at the time—he would have said no. He would have found the idea hilarious, actually, and might well have done an extended bit on air making fun of the queers. And then played some David Bowie. And some Elton John, and then some Queen. And maybe Dusty Springfield.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for a teenager today, looking at the photos of Mr. Bowie from that time, looking at Freddie Mercury’s and Elton John’s careers, looking at Liberace and Paul Lynde, and knowing that somehow the closet accommodated all of that. That we could, somehow, as a culture, manage to know and not know, to let them be openly gay, comically gay, outrageously and fabulously gay, but not associate that with actual homosexuality. Or, at least, not associate it with a man’s love for another man, the possibility of romance and something not unlike marriage. It was a willful blindness of a kind, and at this distance I don’t find it remotely plausible.

I watched a bit of Top Hat a couple of weeks ago, a terrific movie, by the way, and was particularly struck by the fact that nothing in it made any sense if you didn’t know that all the supporting characters were gay. Well, nothing in it makes any sense anyway, but the relationships between the characters all are predicated on their homosexuality. The Ginger Rogers character is being kept by a dressmaker; she isn’t his mistress, of course, as he is just using her to show off his wares. The producer and his valet are both classic nances (the valet is the wonderful Eric Blore, and the producer is Edward Everett Horton, for whom wonderful does not begin to cover it) and their relationship is, um. Bitchily personal. The producer is married (Helen Broderick plays his wife) and is one of those matronly lesbians, obviously more interested in Ginger Rogers than in Fred Astaire, or her husband for that matter. Did people watching the movie in 1935 not understand? I suspect they knew and didn’t know. Just like I knew and didn’t know about David Bowie in 1975.

Not that there’s any point to this, but that’s what I was thinking about, looking at the photos of David Bowie, back when he was the prettiest thing in pop.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 24, 2015

A Little List

As it always seems to happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of offenders our society would put under the ground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s islamofascist terrorists who hang about in mosques—
And also unarmed criminals who get shot down by cops—
All children who are refugees, and want to come and stay —
The fellows who have spent the last ten years in Gitmo bay—
There’s the late-night comic newsman and late-term abortionist—
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

There’s collegiate crusaders and the others of their age,
And the Black Lives activist— I’ve got her on the list!
And the social justice warriors who tweet all their outrage,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
The immigrants from Mexico whose lives ain’t like their own;
And the liberal in the newsroom for the mainstream media corps,
Who factchecks and plays gotcha and is generally a bore;
And who never vets the Kenyan tyrant Moslem socialist!—
I don’t think he’d be missed — I’m sure he’d not be missed!

The judiciary activist who lets stand federal laws
And the militant atheist — I’ve got her on the list!
All people who enlist their friends to click to help their cause—
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed.
And apologetic RINOs of a compromising kind,
Who vote for legislation with a chance of being signed.
The ninety-nine percenters and their corporate masters, too.
The task of filling up the blanks is not that hard to do,
For it really doesn’t matter who they put upon the list,
We’d none of us be missed — we’d none of us be missed!

I had written a few lines on the other side, on what I suppose I would call ‘my side’. Those who many of us on the left wouldn’t miss: The football coach who only wants his quarterback to pray, the comics fan who’s outraged when a character is gay, the preacher who gives sermons in between his Tinder trysts, I don’t think he’ll be missed—I’m sure he’ll not be missed. It seemed mean-spirited somehow, rather than even-handed.

In truth, Gilbert is “punching down” in this song, as he occasionally does. Female writers, smart-ass children, provincials, Africans, and effeminate men are among the people who wouldn’t be missed. And then, of course, he goes on to judges and politicians; I don’t mean that it’s purely punching the underclass. The whole point is that the list includes everybody. Still and all, it often feels mean to me. And the ‘updated’ lyrics tend to feel even meaner, particularly as G&S performances tend to be attended (and funded) by elderly, affluent high-brow snobs, chuckling at jokes about the young, hip and crass. I don’t know if making fun of reality-show contestants is punching down, particularly, but.

At any rate, once I got this thing into my head, I had to write it out, and here it is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 7, 2013

Calm! Calm! The English say cawm.

An email this morning from the Director of the library that employs me mentioned that there were several people away (including the Directorial self), and that the business manager, who I’ll call Linda, “has the calm”, and if we need her we should contact her.

So what I’m wondering—is this a dictation error? I don’t know for sure whether the Library Director dictates emails, but I know a lot of people do, and those emails do often have some odd and interesting wordings. The email does have the sent from my iPad tag (do people seriously not remove that immediately?) so I am inclined to think that it’s beach-wrecking.

That still leaves the question of whether the L.D. said (correctly) that Linda has the conn or (incorrectly) that Linda has the com. TSOR shows that take the com is an existing eggcorn (tho’ it does not yet appear in the eggcorn database), but I’m not seeing anything for take the calm or has the calm—it’s hard to be sure, because of course non-mistakes are going to drown out mistakes in a short search. If it is a dictation thing, then I’m inclined to think that the L.D. said conn and the far more frequently-heard calm was close enough.

But I am bothering telling you so because I love the idea that, while we are on skeleton crew for a day, calm is in short supply and we may need to restock. We may be overstretched trying to do the work of the various people who are away, but on those occasions of stressedosity and overwhelmage, Linda has the calm. I’m imagining the lines of students at circ, at reference, in tech services and ILL and the printers and the copiers and the café, students fighting over the newspapers in the periodicals stacks, and I pick up the phone and jab at Linda’s extension: Dammit, Linda, where’s that calm? I need that calm NOW!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 12, 2013

That mountain was so tall, and John Henry was so small

Some Gentle Readers may be aware that snow fell from the sky onto southern New England this past weekend. A lot of snow. I mean, a lot of snow. You know the thing I do where I post the list of songs that came through my earbuds whilst I was shoveling? I was going to do that but I ran out of pixels. A lot of snow.

So it reminds me that I don’t think I have posted my idea for a fund-raiser for my employer. Y’all can use it wherever you like, as my employer has shown no interest whatsoever, for some reason…

You know those things where people guess when the ice will break on the river? Here’s a local article from last year about a few of them. You pay a dollar and guess a date, and the winner gets some of the pool of money. The one I’m most familiar with has a weight resting on a rope that stretches across the river, and when the weight goes through the ice is raises a flag (I think) that is visible from the road. There are a bunch of ways of doing it: here’s one and here’s another.

So. While the educational institution that employs me does have a creek running through the campus, it’s not deep enough to make for interesting guesses about the melting date. Plus, frankly, nobody cares whether the creek is solid or liquid. We don’t fish it. We don’t swim it. We don’t boat it. Pretty much, not a fun creek.

What we have that is a focus of interest in the wintertime is the amazing mountain of snow. After the snow hits, they need to clear off the parking lots by pushing all the snow into one big mountain. The biggest parking lot is the site of a mountain of impressive proportions. It’s huge. And, of course, it’s unpredictable: will they need to add to it after yet another storm? Will it all melt away? Will it freeze in place? The pile—thousands and thousands of cubic feet of snow—could be here for months. Or could be gone by Friday. I think it’s worth a wager.

All you would need (other than some organization to collect the money and the tickets and figure out who won) is a device that would record the magic moment. I had been thinking you would put something at the bottom of the mountain—in which case you would need a device that had some sort of scale and clock and would withstand tremendous pressure, immersion in water and extreme cold. Now I’m thinking you could do it with something fancy that would be painted on the blacktop, combined with a camera affixed to one of the lampposts. Would that work? Luminescent paint? I dunno, an engineering prof could give extra credit for something that works.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 22, 2013

A Great Time to Be Alive

Yesterday, as I was browsing through the The King Center Archive, as I hope will be one of my MLK Day traditions, I came across an odd little note by Martin Luther King, Jr. called How My Theology Has Changed. It’s undated, but it begins “Ten years ago I was a senior in theological seminary”, which places it in 1960. It’s a lovely concept—It appears to be notes for an article—there’s a thirty-page handwritten draft called How My Mind Has Changed in the Last Decade, which I think is more or less the essay published as Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. The end of the short note that I began with, though, isn’t in the longer draft at all. Here’s my own transcription of the last item on the list:

I am happy to be alive during this period of history. With all of its tensions and uncertainties something profoundly meaningful is happening. Valleys of despair are gradually being exalted and mountains of injustice being made low. Yes, the glory of the Lord is being revealed. May we dare to believe that all flesh will see it together.

The beginning of the list, when he talks about the ten years since he left Crozer, is also absent from that longer piece draft:

Since that time many worldshaking developments have taken place—the emergence of many new nations as a result of the independence struggle, the momentous decisions of the US Supreme Court outlawing segregation, man dramatic exploration of outer space, the creation of more powerful nuclear weapons.

And here’s the closing of the published article, which is also new from the handwritten draft:

The past decade has been a most exciting one. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.

So. In 1960 or so, at any rate, when he was thirty, Dr. King thought it was a great time to be alive. The thought that sparked in me was—do I think it’s a great time to be alive? Do I think that something profoundly meaningful is happening?

And the answer is, no. I don’t.

That may be an artifact of age: I’m a long way past thirty. In fact, I was startled yesterday to suddenly realize that I am a good deal older now than Dr. King was at the time of his death; he was so, so, so young. Also, despite his more wide-ranging description in the notes, Dr. King’s focus on the situation of black Americans has something to do with it—many white Americans don’t, at this remove, think of the 1950s as a time of worldshaking developments and profound changes. My Best Reader pointed out that a leader for LGBT rights, born in 1982 and ruminating on the events of the last ten years, might well describe this as a great and lucky time to be alive. That’s possible.

And, of course, there’s this: Martin Luther King, Jr. was shaping his world. I am not. By 1961 he was head of the SCLC, and was important enough to be asked to contribute to a collection of essays by significant thinkers. If he was not yet the marble hero he became, he was already—at thirty!—nationally prominent and hugely influential. I suspect that such a man is always going to find himself in times of worldshaking developments, if only because he is a worldshaker himself. So the difference is not in the world but in the people.

Still. I think it’s a great time to be alive (and to be a fairly affluent American) just because of the creature comforts. I have air conditioning and sinus medicine; I have shoe inserts and mp3s; I have meat at the grocery store and water at the tap. I would not trade these decades of my life for those decades without penicillin and pinterest. But profound changes and worldshaking developments? I’m afraid my outlook there is grim.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 11, 2013

The Truth about the Platinum Coin

Are y’all following the Platinum Coin argument? No? I can’t blame you. It’s pretty complicated. How about if Your Humble Blogger Explains It All?

The idea dates back to colonial times when Mayer Rothschild, acting as the agent for Alexander Hamilton, first obtained the refined platinum from Charles III of Spain, a fellow Freemason and Illuminatus. This platinum was made into a medallion (or, in Middle German, nikel) which was secreted by John Rowe in a crate of tea on board the Dartmouth (or perhaps its sister ship, the Greek Fire). There is a letter from the engraver, James Geddy, in which he refers to the design, with a wild turkey inside a five-sided pyramid on the obverse and on the reverse a pentagram enclosing a secrette codde. When the boat was seized, the Sons of Liberty (or in Latin, platinus quoinum) sunk the crates of tea to the bottom of the Boston harbor, so that the coin would not fall into British hands. Sadly, the medallion and its secret code were also lost forever.

Or so it was believed at the time.

In 1933, Leverett Saltonstall, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, discovered a diary written by his great-great-grandmother, Mary Cooke Saltonstall Harrod. In a cramped and nearly-illegible hand, Mrs. Harrod gloats over the keeping the coin out of the hands of the Reverend Moses Badger, her son-in-law and a prominent Tory. She wrote that Providence will hyde from this badgerr the plattinum quoine, which lyes at the heartte of the seacredde codde. Leverett Saltonstall connected this seacredde codde to the secrette codde of James Geddy, and then to the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts which hung over his chair in the Massachusetts State House. He attempted to secretly retrieve the medallion from the interior of the fish, inadvertently setting off a pressure-sensitive explosive (thought to have been set by Thomas Gates, who mentions a flaming cod-booby in a Civil War diary) and, sadly, permanently disfiguring his left hand in the ensuing fire. This was to scar him for life. Fortunately, when Major Charles R. Apted of the Harvard Police arrested Mayor Curley on the same day for impersonating a Puerto Rican, the destruction of the state building went nearly unnoticed. The coin itself disappeared for another seventy years.

Digression: Sometimes the platinum coin is confused with the infamous plutonium coin (or greek fire) which was smuggled out of the US by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg inside a bronze ibis, or ibix, and used by the KGB as a touchstone (or, in the vernacular, covanich platchiwoskinov) to find moles in the Party elite. In the post-Soviet era, this plutonium coin was lost for some years, until it turned up hidden inside a bale of marijuana seized from the Harvard Lampoon offices. End Digression.

The next we hear of the platinum coin is in 2002, when Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts deduced the hiding place via a series of clues in Francis Dahl cartoons. She devised a twofold plan of distraction and deceit to extract the coin from its hiding place underneath Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. First, she wrote a screenplay which dealt with the discovery of a colonial-era treasure in a hidden vault under Trinity Church in New York (an old Dutch city named after the koan polatino, or greek fire). Then, working under conditions of strictest secrecy and silence, she drilled a hole fifteen hundred feet under the historic church building. Somehow, this attracted the attention of a financial systems expert from north of the river named Elizabeth Warren, who began drilling her own hole underneath Radcliffe Yard, where the light was better.

Now, the race was on. The first dig in Boston came up empty, as did the first in Cambridge. New measurements were taken, and they began again, each shifting only a few meters to the side: again, the treasure hunters dug fifteen hundred feet below the cities without finding the coin. A third hole was dug in each location, to no avail. Now, the advantage appeared to be with Professor Warren, as Barbara Bishop Harris was delayed writing a sequel to the movie—this time concerning an implausible treasure hidden inside a painted wooden fish (or, in Old Saxon, a rede herringe). Still, a fourth column dug under Radcliffe Yard failed to unearth the platinum coin. Now, people were beginning to take notice. Barbara Harris attempted to steal a march by skipping the fifth column entirely and digging a sixth. Elizabeth Warren responded by redoubling her efforts only to come to disaster when the drill was damaged only 650 feet below the surface as it hit some old metal coin or other. The sixth and final Copley well was completed while the Harvard hole languished. Barbara Harris was declared the victor, garlanded with laurels and laurelled with garlands. Professor Warren, defeated and disgraced, was forced to leave Massachusetts and serve on a Congressional Oversight Panel.

Or was that simply what she wanted us to think?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 14, 2012

The impending demise of the picture postcard

The University bookstore doesn’t sell postcards of the University.

I like picture postcards. I like sending them, and I like getting them. This is mostly my father’s fault—he sent me postcards nearly every week for the years I was an undergraduate. I didn’t get much mail—I think most undergraduates didn’t get much mail—but I got postcards. Dozens of desert scenes, landscapes, birds and flowers and desert rodents and such. When I finally put them all up on the wall, my senior year, I discovered a couple of repeats, but very few. And, of course, whenever he travelled, he would send a postcard from there. Not exotic locales, you understand—San Diego, Los Angeles, Prescott. Places I knew, just as I knew the desert scenes. They weren’t new and exciting, they were just… postcards.

Since college, we generally send each other postcards when we travel. I used to send quite a few postcards, actually. On vacation, or even from home. For a few months, I picked up those comic advertising postcards you used to see in bars and coffeehouses, and sent them through the mail, even to people who lived nearby. It’s just nice to get mail, thought I to myself, and I still think so. It’s just nice to get mail.

Then there was a stretch shortly after my Perfect Non-Reader was born that we printed pictures of her on postcard stock and sent them through the mail. Nice to get mail, nice to get pictures of a cute kid. And not terribly difficult or time-consuming to do. I even, at one point, had address labels for some of the people who we would send them to, so as to make it even easier. Still, at some point we stopped doing that, too.

Now, I send postcards only when I travel, and then, only to two or three people. The last time I went somewhere, I think, I didn’t stop to buy postcards the first place I saw, and then it took me a while to find another place that sold them. Where was that? Texas? The Berkshires? I don’t remember. Anyway, postcards were available, but scarcer than they were. Not to mention the stamps. My father had to hunt down postcards, he said, the last hotel he stayed at not having any at all. And then, I asked at the University bookstore, and they didn’t have any postcards of the University at all. They get asked for them, two or three times a year, but they aren’t worth the space.

They probably aren’t worth the space. If I go somewhere scenic, I can take a picture of it and post it to the social network of my choice (possibly the same minute I take it, possibly from the hotel room or coffee shop later that day) and send it to all my friends simultaneously. My friends in the social network sense, of course, which means it’s a much wider group than would get actual postcards. And the photo would be my photo, of what I wanted to show off—the view out my actual window, or my children swimming in the ocean, or myself pretending to scribble on the sculpture, or the odd little thing that I found off to the side somewhere. It’s like a postcard, except of course it doesn’t carry the additional message I was thinking about you. Unless you tag someone, I suppose.

And the point, I suppose, is that social networks are better than picture postcards. Which they are. I’m glad we have them. If it’s nice to get something in the mail, then it’s nice to get something in your feed, right? And when you go to your aggregator/feed/circle/whatnot, there is very often something there. There isn’t anything in your mailbox (except bills and ads), but there’s something on your wall (in with the bills and ads), and even if it’s a lolcat, well, there were lolcat postcards, too.

And there are still picture postcards. Not as many as there were, but some. They are becoming a thing of the past, that is, a thing of their time, a response to conditions that made travel and postage cheap, but photography and long distance telephone calls (as well as other kinds of telecommunication) expensive (or laborious or difficult), a time which isn’t entirely over, but nearly. Probably. In all likelihood. But there will still be a few around for at least as long as my father will be able to get them. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 26, 2012

Marcus Pinchas, the tailor

So. It seems clear to me that in telling the Marcus Pinchas the Tailor joke the two brothers must have names. I am in favor, generally, of giving names to characters in jokes, and I am particularly in favor of giving names to characters in those kinds of jokes, where a meandering story winds its way to an unexpected punchline. But in this particular joke, where the tailor’s name turns out to be the relevant part of the joke, it’s even more important to say the brothers’ names, because otherwise the listener is likely to wonder why the joketeller is repeating the tailor’s name so often. But if the teller also repeats the brothers’ names (Sol and Nathan seem like good names for this joke, although I think I first heard it with Hyman and Samuel, and really the names don’t matter, so long as they are names) then the repetition of the tailor’s name just slides into the rhythm of the joke. When I tell the joke, I use names for the nuns, as well. This isn’t absolutely necessary, I suppose, although I don’t see why the joketeller should miss the opportunity to say “Sister Mary Peter said to Sister Brigid…, which is just jocular on the face of it. Still, you could say “One nun says to the other…” and it doesn’t ruin the joke or anything, unlike saying “One brother says to the other, what about Marcus Pinchas the tailor?”

But what I don’t know, Gentle Reader, is whether the f-bomb in the punchline is an absolute necessity. The thing is, while Sol and Nathan would have used the cruder language, and it was appropriate to the setting, it would be more common today to say that they had been screwed than that they had been fucked. And scrudus sounds every bit as dog-Latin as fuctus, really. On the other hand, I’m not sure but that part of the hilarity is that that Sister Mary Peter doesn’t recognize the word fuck at all.

Of course, part of the joke is just the unexpected use of the word fuck. On the other hand, though, there are situations that I could tell the scrudus version of the joke where the fuctus version of the joke would be inappropriate. I suppose, really, the question is whether it’s worth telling the joke at all in a PG-13 setting, or whether it’s better to keep that one for after the kids have gone.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 2, 2012

Today you are you! That is truer than true!

Appropriate ways to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss include:

  1. Reading a story
  2. Writing a story
  3. Drawing a picture
  4. Making up silly words
  5. Speaking in anapestic tetrameter

However, inappropriate ways to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss include:

  1. Flying a kite in the house
  2. Cutting down trees
  3. Excluding the folks with no stars upon thars
  4. Having a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle
  5. Reading with your eyes shut

And most importantly, beyond any doubt, utterly and completely without exception, and this means you:

You must not HOP on POP!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the Great American Holiday, isn’t it?

Now, part of me wants to rant about how it exemplifies the worst of America. The observance of abundance in excess, the centrality of television (both the parade and the ritualized violence of football), and most of all the way the whole thing seems to be reduced to a lead-up to the opening of the stores at midnight for the more important kind of consumption.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving! A moment of gratefulness, which is necessarily humbling. The importance of community and family, the tremendous amount of charitable giving (the grocery stores provide ready-packed grocery bags that they will deliver for you to the local soup kitchen), the exercise of the family football game.

And the parade. Our national celebration of the incredible talent, skill and hard work of the Rockettes and the high school marching bands (the marching bands are my favorite part, tho’ I never actually go to see my local ones perform) and the Broadway musical casts and the random celebrities and television personalities and so on and so forth. And the balloons! The balloons! I mean, the balloons.

Think about America, and how much money, time, creativity, and love goes in to gigantic balloons, and how much joy we get out of them. Think about how many people—seriously, think about how many people are smiling this morning because of gigantic balloons.

If you want something to be thankful for today, how about a society that (for all its craziness and selfishness and screwed-up priorities) is smiling in the millions at gigantic balloons.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 22, 2011

I regret nothing!

Your Humble Blogger has been playing a lot of Sorry! lately. Mostly, the games have been two-person affairs with YHB and the Youngest Member, who is nearly five now and understands board games without being able to really choose and implement any complicated strategy. I have found that Sorry! (the game of sweet revenge) is almost ideal for adult-and-child play, because the game is designed to help the last-place person catch up.

The next bit will be obvious to people familiar with the game, but I want to go over it anyway: almost all the special cards (that is, the cards that do something other than move a piece n spaces forward) are tilted to help the player in last much more than the player in first. The Sorry! card itself, of course, is effectively a lose-a-turn card for a player doing well enough to get his last piece out of Start. The 4 is really only bad for someone whose only move is to back out of the safety zone. Also, once your last piece is in the safety zone, the high-value cards are lose-a-turn cards for you (but extremely valuable for a player who is on the last lap. Even the 7 card that is so wonderful in the middle game is not helpful on the last piece. All of those combine to make unlikely that the player who gets out to an early lead will win before the other player(s) at least get very close to victory themselves.

Game-players may well be thinking that it sounds terrible. If you use whatever strategy is available to you to gain a significant lead, you are punished; if I play poorly and fall behind, I am rewarded. This is true. Sorry! is not a good strategy game, even when compared to other board games (such as Careers, obviously, or Monopoly). It does, though, have strategy choices, unlike the Uncle Wiggly Game or Hi, Ho Cherry-O, or (shudder) Candyland. It’s an intermediate game, which is exactly what is needed. Pretty soon, the Youngest Member be on to Careers and whatnot. Or we can start doing the hand-of-cards version, I suppose, which I have never tried.

Anyway, I wasn’t actually going to write about game-playing with five-year-olds, but if GRs have any suggestions for board games that would work with a precocious kid and an adult (or a card game for that matter—he seems too young for Gin, if you know what I mean, but perhaps ready for Casino), I’d love to hear them. Mostly I was wondering what people’s take is on this balance of making it possible for an early trailer to catch up and versus rewarding good play. It has always seemed to me that games that allow one player to dominate the whole game are low MFQ, and even more than that, games that frequently have one player essentially eliminated early in the game are low MFQ. On the other hand, Sorry! (the game of sweet revenge) clearly goes too far in that direction (for adults who are at least a trifle serious about strategy). What medium-length games that get the balance right for grupps? What medium-length games have a clever way of avoiding the problem altogether?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 16, 2011

Dongle jokes for the win

Submitted: this sketch wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny if it weren’t for the cloth cap.

Of course, that cloth cap is part of fifty years of television bits set in shops closely approximating that shop, often with those same actors, in cloth caps. It’s that through-line that really makes the sketch work for me, and that the gibberish they are spouting would have been gibberish indeed when they started out.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 26, 2011

Throwing Stuff

So, this probably wouldn’t work, but it seems amusing to me: an on-line catapult game (as with those outraged avians) but the users upload their own pictures to use as missiles, with the quality of each one resulting from a grade given by other users. I imagine a set of five, with a grade given to each one and some sort of multiplier for the set.

To get an idea: I upload a set of German Engineering, which contains a VW Beetle, a Krups coffeemaker, a Bosch refrigerator, a Zeppelin and the bust of Beethoven from Schroeder’s piano. When log in to the game site, I am given a set to grade, this one consisting of the Oldenberg Clothespin, the Koons Puppy, the Christo-wrapped Reichstag, the Angel of the North, and an Easter Island head. I must give each one a grade (A to F? 1 to 5? Or just like/dislike?) and then a grade for the set as a whole before it lets me go on to the game. Each set has to have—what—five grades before a person can play with it (temporary guest sets should be available for those who are waiting or who don’t want to log in; perhaps it can be an option for the user to make her uploaded set available for others to use) which also give the site host a chance to make the image usable in the game and to block anything undesireable. Then I get to knock down milk cans or whatever by catapulting a Beetle.

The thing that I find amusing, though, would be that I would see the grades my set was getting, and have the opportunity to try new sets that would get better grades and do more damage. You could presumably do something clever with special powers (exploding Beethoven’s bust! Splitting the coffeemaker into three parts! Extra spinning damage for the New York Public Library Lions!) or allow head-to-head matchups (with actual heads!) (well, pictures of heads, anyway), but since I don’t actually play the catapult games, I don’t know what would be clever.

Well, and as I say it probably wouldn’t work—you would need to put so many restrictions on undesirable/offensive missiles that users would get cranky and moderators would get bored. And it would only work if the bulk of the users got into the spirit of it, being willing to give good grades to other people’s entertaining sets rather than giving out all Ds to keep the high scores to themselves. And while I would find that incensed fowl game much more entertaining if I were tossing around Civil War generals or Newbery Medal books or a set of steak knives, I am probably in the minority.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 8, 2011

Appalling, Endearing, Amusing

Your Humble Blogger happened to watch Pirate Radio a little while ago. I enjoyed it a lot, by the way—there’s the advantage of terrific music, but there’s also the Richard Curtis thing, which is what I wanted to talk about here. I have mentioned one of his works before, but I don’t think I have ever really talked about him as a writer, and a damned good writer.

I love Blackadder (particularly Seasons Two and Four), and I adore The Vicar of Dibley, and I am completely smitten with The Tall Guy, and I am crazy about Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I am fond of Notting Hill and I rather like bits of Bean and I enjoyed Love, actually very much, actually, and of course I split my proverbial over Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death, and there isn’t much I like better than Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire. That’s quite a list, right there, isn’t it? There are probably a handful of screenwriters that have a comparable list, but not more than a handful. So what is it that Richard Curtis does well that puts him in that rarified company? I mean, he’s funny, of course, but he’s not the funniest writer around or even in the top ten. And he does romance well, but I don’t think he’s in the top ten there, either.

I’ll tell you what I think he does very well indeed, possibly better than anyone else: creating characters that are objectively appalling, but who are nonetheless endearing and fun to watch. John Howard Davies, who worked on Bean and The Vicar of Dibley as well as Fawlty Towers and Steptoe and Son and a million others, is quoted in his Guarniad obituary as saying that “All the best sitcom characters are relentlessly horrible”. I don’t completely agree with that—it would be possible to list ten great sitcom characters that are not horrible, or at least not relentlessly horrible—but certainly there are lots of great sitcom characters that are relentlessly horrible. But relentless horribility is not enough. There are lots of lousy sitcoms with lousy horrible characters. The trick, the amazing trick, is to have a character that is utterly appalling, relentlessly horrible, foul and vile, but who we in the audience love nonetheless.

The horrible characters in Four Weddings and a Funeral make a potentially cloying movie much better as does the remarkable room-mate in Notting Hill. Rowan Atkinson was even more appalling playing (essentially) himself in The Tall Guy. But it is (as Mr. Davies says) the sitcoms that make the best use of this talent.

Blackadder himself is perhaps the best possibly example of the appalling character who is endearing in his horribility, and he is surrounded by people who are appallingly stupid, appallingly vicious or appallingly insane. Dibley is populated by people who are appallingly selfish, appallingly stupid or have appallingly foul personal habits.

In Pirate Radio (aka The Boat that Rocked) the boat is inhabited by vain, obsessive, self-important twits. Misogynists at best, the DJs (particularly) treat anyone and everyone around them as the butts of their own pleasure. Not only are they manipulative and abusive, but manipulation and abuse are their first resorts, their habit, their delight. Their only redeeming quality is that they like pop music. Think about that—they may be venal, nasty-minded and petty, but they like The Kinks. In another writer’s hands, I would have been utterly depressed within twenty minutes, and probably shut the thing off before the half-hour mark. Mr. Curtis can make me enjoy being on the boat with these people and even root for them, even as I laugh (rather than cringe) at their appalling behavior.

Of course, it’s all a matter of taste—my Best Reader, for instance, can’t stand the appalling people in Fawlty Towers; I find them hilarious. I can’t stand the characters in Seinfeld, who are perhaps the most universally beloved relentlessly horrible characters in American history. Different people like different things, because people are different one to another, and that of course is what makes the universe interesting and fun. But for me, Richard Curtis tops the list at creating those characters that are both endearing and appalling, the great achievement of sitcomitude (and which, by the way, can even survive the characters Leaving The Bar, which is another matter altogether).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 3, 2011

Or a queue, really, whichever is funnier

So. One of the things about following any on-line community for long enough is the joy of finding out that you appreciate the in-jokes. Or if not in-jokes specifically, the little turns of phrase or signifiers of inside-the-ring-ness, the things that people outside the group might understand. Then, of course, comes the temptation to use those bits of phrase elsewhere, mostly of course because they are ever so amusing, but as it happens they are badges of acceptance in the Ring and, you know, one doesn’t wish to brag, but…

I mention this because I found the following quite funny:

“My breakfasts for the past three Saturdays: fry up; cold pizza which I stupidly reheated and ate soggy; leftover spaghetti bolognaise,” says Dan Lucas. "So good." An orderly one, ladies, an orderly one.

This is, of course, from the OBO or over-by-over coverage of the epic Test Match series in which England is thrashing India and making themselves Head Boy in the Test Cricket world. It’s from day three of the Second Test, in fact, and the man at the controls is Rob Smyth. The email he is reprinting is in response to a conversation begun when Mr. Smyth observed that breakfast may be in a general way the most important proverbial of the whatnot, sometimes the second Test can be the highlight of the etc etc. Much breakfast talk that day, I can tell you.

The orderly one, if it isn’t obvious, and honestly I rather hope it isn’t, is the orderly line that the ladies are forming for their opportunities at romance with the ill-breakfasted such-a-catch Mr. Lucas. An expression of affectionate contempt, if you will. Or contemptuous affection. Very manly. It’s the regular phrase used amongst OBOers to tag on to the end of some poor sap’s half-bragging admission of slovenliness, poor eating habits or taste in music. It’s a thing that the British are particularly good at, of course, the implication by opposites, or heavy irony—although Woody Allen, in his younger, funnier days was good at exactly that joke, bragging about his obviously mythical romantic conquests which were comic because of his comically inept and unsexy persona, which persona he did not reference in the words at all. Well, maybe sometimes, but mostly it was in the tone.

Anyway, my point (and sometimes, Gentle Reader, I do have a point) is that it’s such good shorthand for guy-ness. You’re not dragging me to some chick-flick, I’m gonna see the Transformers again. No shoving, ladies, keep in line. I don’t like needy, clingy women. Everyone will have a turn, ladies, if everyone is polite.Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. Let’s have an orderly one, ladies, an orderly one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 27, 2011

Another Atoz from the Mists of History

Six years ago and change, YHB did an atoz of people born in 1924, and suggested that others could do other years. And eventually, I did another year, 1917.

A: Red Auerbach. Surprisingly few big names to choose from, here; I was tempted by June Allyson, but then, who wouldn’t be?

B: Robert Byrd, recipient of this Tohu Bohu’s Constitution Day Public Mocking of the Stupid Legislator award for 2005.

C: Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. Tempting to pick Matt Christopher, who wrote umpty-’leven kids books about sports, including Catcher with a Glass Arm. Third place: Hans Conried.

D: I guess Phyllis Diller. Not much of a selection.

E: Will Eisner, although had it been Ahmet Ertegun and not his brother Nesuhi that was born in 1917, it would have been a tough choice.

F: Ella Fitzgerald. If it weren’t for Ella, the great June Foray would be a good choice.

G: Zsa Zsa Gabor? No, John Birks “Dizzie” Gillespie. Sid Gordon is third place.

H: Fannie Lou Hamer, clearly, Although it’s a very strong group. Lena Horne, Frankie Howerd, Celeste Holm, and great Arizonan Zenna Henderson.

I: Dahlov Ipcar, although I had to click through to be reminded who she was. But at least I’ve seen some of her books, which puts her ahead of the rest of the I list for 1917.

J: Edward Jewesbury. Again, I had to not only click through but do an image search to be reminded of just who he was. Still, the name sounded familiar, and the face is more than familiar, and there just aren’t that many J names. I blame the Germans.

K: Murray Kempton is a strong contender here, or Jack Kirby, or Jim Konstanty. Just kidding—it’s JFK, of course.

L: Jacob Lawrence. Arthur Laurents is in second, and Vera Lynn in third.

M: There’s Dino and Thelonius and Texas Playboy Leon McAuliffe, and Swatalum Lee McPhail, and Senator Metzenbaum, and Jessica Mitford, and but there’s no question this is Sal “The Barber” Maglie.

N: I have a soft spot for Nigel Nicolson, but you knew that.

O: George “Father” Osmond, I guess.

P: I.M. Pei is clearly first. Irving Penn second, maybe Joe Page third. What happened to Joe Page?

Q: Er… There’s Hal Quick, who played in 12 games for the Washington Senators as a shortstop with a career OPS+ of 45. If he hadn’t died in 1974, I’d be willing to trade for him this week. But I think I have to pick Yosef Qafih, who I had never heard of either, but who translated Maimonides into Hebrew, so that’s all right.

R: John Raitt. Although Irv Robbins (Bert Baskin’s partner) ain’t bad. And there’s Oscar Romero, on his way to sainthood. But could they sing?

S: Johnny Sain. But Terry Sanford is a good choice, too. Or Alan Schneider.

T: Oliver Tambo. I have to mention Virgil “Fire” Trucks, just because the name is so good.

U: I am going to choose Ernest Unterkoefler, Bishop of Charleston. I suppose.

V: Cyrus Vance. Though I gave consideration to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson

W: Whizzer White, but for second and third, you can pick Trudy Warner or Jane Wyman in either order.

X: Koçi Xoxe is the only X on the list, so there isn’t much of a choice.

Y: Isuzu Yamada, because I have at least seen Throne of Blood.

Z: Tempting to pick Paul Zoungrana, Archbiship of Ougadougou, just because I like saying Ougadougo, but I think I’ll go with Yitzchok Zilber, who embodied, in some sense, the whole Soviet Jewry image that I grew up with.

The interesting(ish) observation is that (a) there are a lot of names on that Wikipedia list that I have never heard of, who are notable for WWII heroism; and (2) there are a lot more obscure names on Wikipedia than there were five years ago. Obscure to me, anyway; it seems as if there are a lot more names from overseas. At any rate people who I feel perfectly comfortable never having heard of.

This presumably means that the game, such as it ever was, admits of a very low fun quotient at this time. Ah, well. Perhaps in five more years, it will be interesting again, tho’ I can’t imagine how.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 19, 2011

Naughts and Crosses, circles and plus signs

So, I don’t know how Google plus is making the circle metaphor work within their system for the hip kids, but I find the idea intriguing.

See, there’s this thing we have talked about here, this Better Together thing, about communities and joining and American politics. About the sense that Americans both do and don’t want to think of themselves as part of larger groups, about tribalism for good and bad, and most of all about the current inability of my Party or the Left to exploit the positives of community into a sense of membership in either the Party or the Movement, or even in society. This isn’t at the core of Mr. Putnam’s insight, but it’s there nonetheless.

And it occurred to me that with Facebook’s oh-so-facebooky user interface, there is a sense of connection without a sense of membership in anything other than FB itself. That is, I may make groups out of my FB friends, I may join actual Facebook groups, and I may like various things, but my experience of Facebook is almost entirely of individual connections, of one person saying one thing and my reading it—and while I am aware that there are dozens or hundreds or thousands of other people reading it as well, I am not in membership with them as they are doing it.

Now, the metaphor of friends (or that of followers) hasn’t borne any real fruit in other social network sites—well, I suppose that LiveJournal might have worked to make friends and even communities once upon a time—so there isn’t any reason to think that Google’s metaphors will change the way we really think. And yet.

One of the most powerful social motivators is the urge to get into the Inner Ring; as C.S. Lewis says in that essay (and if you haven’t read it and passed it along to such young persons of your acquaintance as will take it)

In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.

I disagree with that, actually. Many of us have given to charity or to a political campaign, attended a rally, volunteered, achieved at sports, recorded an It Gets Better video or otherwise done something positive as a result of that pie pressure to gain admittance to an Inner Ring. And, of course, many of us keep informed as citizens mostly out of an attempt to know what the insiders know, so that when somebody mentions some news item, we can say the real trouble is that Representative Ryan and Representative Cantor are each planning to become the next Speaker. And while that might not be a source of satisfaction in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, it part of the information we need to be free and self-governing, so there’s that.

But the point is that the desire to be included rather than excluded from that elusive Inner Ring can lead us to actions either good or bad—but the metaphors of our experience with Social Media, of followers and subscribers and klout and even of friends, of liking a thing or sharing it or digging it, are not metaphors that exploit the Inner Circle idea but circumvent it. The metaphor of the circle seems primed to exploit it. Unless, as is likely, the circle is just another list like all the others. Metaphors don’t always provide that extra layer of meaning, even if they are supposed to.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 18, 2011

Not About the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011 (trademark)

I did look through the photos of the Annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity, quickly, and mostly being amused by the uniforms—as you can see in the victory photo, the players mostly wore full uniforms from professional and college teams associated with their districts, and I for one was disappointed that Representative Mack (R-FL) wasn’t wearing a Phillies uniform. And quality uniforms, as far as I can tell, with the name of the representative on the back, and at least in some cases the district number. I guess people don’t show up to these in sweatshirts. Even the softball game last month had uniforms, although one could discourse, if so inclined, about the women wearing matching jerseys and the men wearing non-matching uniforms. Anyway, it was For Amusement Value Only, as they say, until I came across this photo of Rep. Sanchez. And I got all teary-eyed.

You get no points, by the way, for guessing which team Rep. Sanchez plays for, nor does My Party get particular points for having, as far as I can tell from the roster, the only female ballplayer on the field. Parity, what?

You also don’t get points for knowing why Rep. Sanchez wears number IX.

I am not saying that I want my Perfect Non-Reader or for that matter any of my nieces to grow up to work in the House of Representatives, but if she does, I want her to play hardball, just like Linda Sanchez.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 11, 2011

Giants! Wizards! Elves!

So, have any of y’all ever played Giants, Wizards and Elves? The description above is maddeningly incomplete and vague, but what may be at fault is my own conceptualization that is so far off that I can’t understand what would be otherwise clear instructions. This is annoying to me because it looks like it might be a good game. For kids. A cross between Rock, Paper, Scissors and Red Rover: it’s played with teams and running around and shouting and giggling and so on.

Well, and for those who care but don’t want to click through, or can’t remember, here’s the basic idea: there are two teams, which each start from a safe-base and come to the middle. Then on the count of three they make the appropriate sound effect and gesture to indicate whether they are Giants, Wizards, or Elves; the people on the losing team (Wizards beat Giants, of course, and Elves beat Wizards, and Giants swing at sliders in the dirt beat Elves) have to make it back to their base before they are tagged by the winning team. Members of the East Team who are tagged become members of the Red Team for the next round, until there is only one team.

The question is how it would work, really, and what you would need, and how many players, and all that. I suppose I could do more research.

[time passes—listen! time passes]

OK, it turns out that there are a bunch of videos showing how it works, and there are clearly lots of different ways to play it. My favorite so far is this one, because it’s very important to be wearing a snazzy blue uniform. Although the versions with dozens of people in a rec room seem like excellent fun with only a few broken limbs. So I suppose I have a grip on the game as such, and just wonder if any of y’all are familiar with it, and whether it is a good game with a smallish number of people (say, six of varying ages).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 17, 2011

Puff Piece: Clarke and Dawe

The news that BBC denies Olympics comedy stole from Australian TV show is not altogether surprising—it’s not surprising that John Clarke tried to sell them his show, nor that they didn’t buy it, nor that somebody else within the BBC subsequently came up with the exact same idea, nor even that the internal idea was approved whilst the identical but antipodal idea was not. There it is.

It does remind me, however, how wonderful The Games was—seriously, it is amazingly good, really, really, really funny—and to link to the John Clarke and Bryan Dawe interviews on the Australian ABC. Essentially, every now and then they record a short interview in which Mr. Dawe asks Mr. Clarke questions of topical import; Mr. Clarke is usually standing in for some Australian public figure. I say standing in for; he is not imitating the person at all, but Mr. Dawe addresses him with that public figure’s name, and asks him questions appropriate to that figure. Or nearly appropriate. Their sense of humor veers to the absurd side of satire; while it is topical humor, and the topics are largely obscure to me (and to most GRs, I would guess), the people are still funny.

I want to pass a long a bit of brilliant dialogue about a possible epidemic:

BRYAN DAWE: So, now it’s everywhere?
JOHN CLARKE: It’s everywhere, yes, indeed.
BRYAN DAWE: Right. And where else is it?
JOHN CLARKE: Other than everywhere?
JOHN CLARKE: Well it’s everywhere else as well.
BRYAN DAWE: Both places?
JOHN CLARKE: Yes, both places, yes.
BRYAN DAWE: Right, I see.

I love that. In fact, I suspect that for the foreseeable future, any time anybody says of something they’re everywhere! I will ask …and where else?

The great thing about John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, though, is just how good their timing is. The writing is very good, but the genius is in the timing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 10, 2011

Enn Why See

So, and here’s the thing: Your Humble Blogger hearts New York. Well, Manhattan. I don’t know much about the rest of it. I don’t actually know much about Manhattan, either. About once a year or so, on average, I get the chance to spend a day, or at least a few hours, in Manhattan, and I walk around the streets thinking about how much I heart this city.

It’s just so— big. So much. So exhilirating, so energetic. The people-watching is so good here, mostly a result of the stigma against public transportation being inoperative for some reason. So everybody walks in Manhattan. The affluent, the impoverished, the aged, the youthful, the youthful aged, the prematurely wizened youth. Tourists and locals, and semi-locals who come in on the train five days a week, and even semi-er locals who have an apartment here and a house fifty miles away. And it’s all so much.

I don’t think it’s anything that is really, objectively, empirically true, but: the flashy young men are flashier, the swank women are swankier, the kooky people are kookier, the ugg boots are ugglier, the little old ladies are, well, they aren’t littler, and they aren’t older, and they aren’t more ladylike, but they are still, somehow, more little-old-lady than they are back home (or anywhere except Boston, where they still wear bombazine and carry umbrellas).

And the signs! You might thing that big, bright changing video signs are no longer a Times Square novelty. After all, there’s a video billboard off 84 in Hartford; not a big deal. But this is one of those cases where a difference in scale makes for a difference in kind. And then there’s the quantity. It’s so— much. And even though I am disappointed in how many neon letters are out in the various signs (I blame the snow) (and the Republican Party) (and I blame the Republican Party for the snow), the old-fashioned neon signs are still part of it, as are the humongous low-tech ads, and even the smaller signs with the names of the hotels and restaurants and theaters. When I am waiting for the light to change, I find myself so mesmerized by all there is to see, I forget to look out for the roundhead so I can cross with the light. Fortunately, I lived in Boston for ten years, so I can cross any damn street in the country against the light, but still.

Mostly, though, it’s that YHB totally buys in to the whole romance of New York City. I don’t even enjoy it ironically. Yesterday I looked up at the sign and saw that I was on Fifty-Second Street, where love beckoned to Ethel Merman in Du Barry was a Lady, and there was 21, where the couples clamor for more. And it was great. I mean, I’m not enough of a sucker to go in and pay fifteen bucks for an old-fashioned, but YHB was grinning like a proverbial. Herald Square, Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, 42nd St—in the Word-O-Rama category of Famous Streets, are half the streets that anybody enters from this island? And here I am, in the city that never sleeps. Fiorello’s city, where the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, where the Guys and the Dolls eat at Mindy’s (I had lunch at Lindy’s yesterday, had the cheesecake), dancing down the street in Brendan Behan’s footsteps.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 14, 2011

The Jim Affair

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about the Jim controversy. I want to get it right, though, as I think many if not most Gentle Readers disagree with me about it.

The issue, of course, is that Alan Gribben in The NewSouth Edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn takes liberties with the original text, most controversially removing the word nigger from the book entirely. This has been described as the downfall of western civilization.

I am not outraged.

I mostly line up with Colin McEnroe on this one, although I would put my emphasis somewhat differently.

Do you know the story about James Michener, who when a visitor to his house would commiserate that such-and-such a film version had ruined one of his books, would pull a shocked face, leap up and run to the bookshelf and grab a copy of the book in question, flip through it frantically, and then slump in relief that it had not, in fact, been ruined. It was all still there. Huck Finn is all still there.

In wordier, earlier language: If the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable. In such a case let the artist refrain from using the chisel or the pencil: but with the works of the poet no such danger occurs, and the critic need not be afraid of employing his pen; for the original will continue unimpaired, although his own labours should immediately be consigned to oblivion. That is from the preface to the Family Shakespeare; Thomas Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare without the naughty bits. My own experience of the Bard was greatly enhanced because of the tradition of Bowdlerising the works for youth; I happily compared my school’s texts with my parents’ copies, looking for the dirty bits to pass along to my classmates. I remember being outraged to discover that one of my high school classes was using a version cut for length, after examining an omitted passage and being unable to put any interpretation on it that was, you know, a bit rude.

I can’t say that my parents encouraged me to find the dick jokes, tho’ now I come to think of it, my mother it was who pointed out the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon. But my parents did have a complete set, without which I would certainly never have enjoyed the televised series as much as I did. And without which I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading the Bowdlerised versions I got in class. So, my first thought is that anyone who is down on the NewSouth Huck should go out and get another version, or at least download one, right away before their kids get hold of the expurgated version, the one without the gannet.

Digression: I had never seen this version, with the brilliant Graham Chapman manning the counter. It’s amazing how much less funny it is to remove the eagle from Olsen’s Standard Book of American Birds. Also, it’s less funny when the customer is a woman, even if it’s Connie Booth. End Digression.

That joke, of course, is funny not because all expurgations are outrageous, but because it’s outrageous to take the gannet out of a birding book. They can’t print a special version of British Birds for gannet-haters. The question is whether it makes sense to print a special version of Huck Finn for people who don’t like that word. I think it does.

There’s a long history of Bowdlerisation. There are, believe it or not, books of Bible Stories that leave the Rape of Dinah entirely out. The editors of those books don’t necessarily want people to remain ignorant of Dinah throughout their lives. I want my children to have the full text available, and I want them to know that there is something that they are missing, but I don’t necessarily want to teach them about Dinah until I know they aren’t going to be fixated on it.

Everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? You balance what you get and what you lose. Mr. Gribben says that “a succession of firsthand experiences” led him to believe that the existence of an Bowdlerised (or Gribbenated) Huck Finn would lead to more people, rather than fewer, reading the original text. Teachers who haven’t been assigning the book may choose to assign it, if they know that the discussion of the book won’t be entirely derailed by discussion of the word nigger. Or Injun, for that matter. And he is the expert. Like most of the people who are commenting on the topic, I haven’t talked to anybody who has assigned, or who has refrained from assigning, the original text to a class. Mr. Gribben has, which doesn’t make him the final word, but does give him some sort of expertise that is worth respect.

I want to add to the James Michener story and the Thomas Bowdler quote a quote specifically about this book. It comes from the introduction, which every single person who reads the NewSouth Edition will have in their hands, and which explains the emendations. And in that introduction, Mr. Gribben points out that “literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing”. He even suggests people read the handwritten manuscript. Some people seem to believe that Mr. Gribben doesn’t want anyone to read the word nigger in Huck Finn; that seems to be entirely and completely false, and indeed a slander (or libel) on Mr. Gribben.

The question, it seems to me, is not so much whether the NewSouth edition is right, but whether it is necessary. I wouldn’t buy it for our house—I would get one of the dozens of other editions Mr. Gribben brings up. If my Perfect Non-Reader were assigned the book, I would make sure she had access to our original text. If the local teachers consulted me, I would advise against assigning the NewSouth edition, and possibly against assigning the book at all. But then, I’m not terribly fond of the book, and never was, even when I went through my Mark Twain phase. I think my daughter, and most other kids, would vastly prefer to read about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, although a highly edited version of that might be even better…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 8, 2010

Who's got game?

Your Humble Blogger plays a lot of videogames on the computer. I don’t write about them much, partly because I am embarrassed about how often I play videogames on the computer, and partly because I figure that the kind of videogames I play are not terribly interesting to talk about. Although I do think about them a lot. Overthink them. There is, presumably, a limit to the tactics available in any given one-button game.

One game I have been playing a lot over the last year is Little Master Cricket. Little Master Cricket is a simple swing-and-hit game: your batsman can’t move his feet, and you use the mouse (or trackpad) (or finger, I suppose; it’s available for the whatsitphone) to drag his body around by the wrists in order to swing. You score runs depending on where you hit the ball; near the ground for one run, higher up for two, higher yet for four, even higher for six, and then if you hit it too high, you are out. Or if you fail to protect the wicket, of course. Anyway, on each ball, you can get from one to six runs or be out (or leave the ball on the field, because of some odd and entertaining aspects of the game that I won’t go in to here).

Those are runs, by the way; your score is your total runs multiplied by your strike rate; that is, if you score N runs off K balls, your score is N * (N/K), rounded to a whole number. The game helpfully keeps track of your strike rate as you go, only not actually all that helpfully, because there are some odd bits of hinkiness that go along with the strike rate, mostly that of course your last ball will add zero runs while still counting as a ball, which brings down your strike rate and thus your score quite a bit. F’r’ex, if you hit five sixes and then are out on the sixth ball, your strike rate is five and your score is 150.

Generally, though, I ignore the score and go for runs. That isn’t quite true—I like to get a score over a hundred, so I aim for that, and if I make it (which I often do), I try to get a hundred runs. Getting a hundred runs (or a century) is a Big Deal in cricket. And while of course Little Master Cricket is nothing like cricket (even less like cricket than my other videogame, the one that taught me the rules at least, which this one doesn’t), I think I have learned more of an appreciation for a century by aiming for it in my little videogame.

See, even ignoring the strike rate multiplier for the score, the strike rate is still important. While theoretically, I could block every ball and get a hundred runs in a hundred and four balls, in practice I would miss one eventually, or the wonky virtual physics would get me out, in either case long before I picked up a hundred. Hm. Let me try it… yes, I was out for seven on one off the handle. Second try I had more than a dozen balls lying inert on the field before an incoming bounced off one of them and over my avatar’s head. And the third try I got to a dozen or so before getting out. So, no, as I suspected the purely defensive game is not an easy way to a hundred runs.

Of course, a very aggressive game is not an easy way to a hundred, either. Taking a big swing at every ball is a good way to make quite outs for a handful of runs (although a decent way to get to a score of a hundred in a short time, if you don’t mind making some quite outs along the way). Even a deliberate attempt to put every ball squarely in the four is hard to accomplish, and at least for me leads to trying to dig out a ball coming in low and lift it, and if I get too much wrist into it, it’ll pop up for an easy out.

No, the way to get a hundred runs is to watch each ball as it comes in, judge its potential, and then try to block it, smash it for six, or line it out for four based on that judgment. You have to decide quickly, as the ball is coming in, and you have to act on that judgment immediately, holding back for a big swing or setting up to block or whatever is called for at the moment. You can’t go in to each ball with a prepared and prejudged plan; you have to react to the ball as it comes in.

And yet, I can’t go in to each ball without a prepared and prejudged plan; I can’t just react to the ball as it comes in. I don’t have time. And when I say I am going for runs, what I really mean is that I am trying to maximize my chances to get a hundred, which isn’t quite the same thing. A score of 102 makes me much, much happier than a score of 98, while a score of 98 doesn’t actually make me happier than a score of 94. The ton line may be arbitrary, but that’s where it is, and that’s what I am aiming for. Which means that I tend to keep an eye on the score, and adjust my aggressiveness accordingly. But which way? If I get to around 75 runs, it’s too early to start blocking and making my way by ones and twos, because something bad will happen within fifteen balls, right? But can I really risk my score by trying to swat a couple of sixes? If I do, and I’m just about up to ninety, then it’s time to block—but if I block my way to 97 in another six balls and then pop one up to end it, I’ll be kicking my virtual self all virtual day. With just one more four, I could have had my century!

All of which, of course, is on a computer, sliding my mouse around with only my children to watch. For actual cricketers, facing actual bowlers who are varying their speed and angle and spin by volition, rather than randomly, and who also face changes in the light, the wind, the heat, and who are getting physically tired from running between the wickets, with thousands of fans watching them and rooting for or against them, and who have to keep their minds on the outcome of the match, not just their own statistics (but making centuries, rather than eighties, will have a huge effect on their careers and opportunities and finances)— I’m not saying that I know what it’s like. I’m just saying that I have a little bit better of a grasp, I think, on some of the aspects of it, to make it seem even more impressive than it seemed before.

So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 8, 2010

No future

Malcolm McLaren has died.

It’s hard not to feel personally bereft, at the moment, although of course I am not really basing my Buckingham on Mr. McLaren so much as on a kind of stereotype (or archetype, if you will) that Mr. McLaren himself used and subverted and ultimately fed into. I admit that I thought, briefly, that it would be great to have his curly mop of hair atop the Duke of Buckingham’s head, but (a) my hair is not curly, and (2) no, it wouldn’t be great. Still.

As it happens, I don’t really have much good to say about Mr. McLaren on the occasion of his demise. It’s an odd thing—I don’t particularly like his music, or his fashion design, or the staged outrages and Situationist stuff that he perpetrated so effectively, but I am glad that they exist. I think his attitude (Turn left, if you're supposed to turn right; go through any door that you're not supposed to as quoted in the Observer recently) is self-indulgent and self-defeating, and that it is far likelier to lead to bad art as good, and that even more the dissemination of that idea is far likelier to lead to a docile and easily-manipulated crowd than an independent and progressive one. On the other hand, I would hate to live in a world without punks. I want my daughter to grow up, as I grew up, in a world where people are trying to sell previously-ripped jeans and t-shirts. I want her to do what I did: experience the thrill and energy of contrarianism, and then find some deeper and more satisfying joy.

I want the establishment, and I am specifically referring to myself and the things I like and support, to be faced with the sort of aggressive and frankly stupid disrespect that typified the punk movement. I want taboos (and calling a shop 'SEX' and putting bondage gear in the window was very very taboo when they did it) to be smashed—I don't want to smash them myself, thank you, but I want to be making the choice to follow the traditions I value, not just following along without thinking.

I asked a few college kids today if they had heard of Malcolm McLaren; they hadn't. That's too bad. If you are eighteen or nineteen, and you think of punk as being your parent's generation, you're right—but you are also wrong. Punk is for all time, but not for everybody; punk is about looking for something to smash, and discovering, with any luck for the first time, that a lot of our assumptions and our traditions and our taboos and our social structures really are fragile. Yelling boo! at the right time, in the right voice, loud enough, really does work. And it's a great thing for people who want to take those traditions and social structures and assumptions and taboos seriously to know that, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 2, 2010

Happy Seuss Day

It is the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Happy Seuss Day!

The amazing thing about Dr. Seuss, really, is not that he wrote five of the greatest children’s books. It’s that he wrote five more of the greatest children’s books. And maybe five more after that. Around the dinner table last night, we were discussing our Top Five Dr. Seuss books, and although there was some overlap, it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if there wasn’t. And I think the spread, between three of us, was ten books or more—I don’t remember exactly who chose what, other than my Best Reader clinging to the wrongheaded belief that Horton Hatches the Egg is a more moving and profound book than Horton Hears a Who.

Well, and here’s a Top Five for me.

  • Horton Hears a Who
  • Fox in Socks
  • The Sleep Book
  • There’s a Wocket in my Pocket
  • Hop on Pop

That is leaving off so many good books, I’ll make a different Top Five

  • The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins
  • Ten Apples up on Top
  • The Foot Book
  • On Beyond Zebra
  • The Lorax

Oh, shoot, I forgot

  • Please Try to Remember the First of Octember!
  • The Lorax
  • I Can Read with my Eyes Shut
  • Oh, the Places You’l Go
  • The Sneetches (and other stories, including the story of the North-going Zax)

Also, there was a Grinch and a Cat and some Green Eggs and Ham. The last of which, if I’m going to be honest, would probably make a Top Five, if I had to narrow it down.

I’m curious as to your Top Fives, Gentle Reader—and if you are willing to share, are they the Top Five from having them read to you or from reading them to others? Or from reading them all on your own (big words, too)?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 8, 2010

C2: This time it counts!

It occurs to me that some of y'all may have seen Cranford, the miniseries, either when it was on Masterpiece or even grabbing the shiny discs after I mentioned how wonderful it is. I hope so, anyway, because it’s a lovely, lovely thing.

Well, and it was so successful back on Albion’s Pleasant Shores that they made another one, a sequel that I believe is called Cranford and Son, for showing at Yuletide just last week. And people seemed to like it there. The Guardian said that even if you think that the sight of one more bonnet will make you puke out your Christmas pud, you don’t want to miss A Very Cranford Christmas”. The Times reviewer said that The End of Cranford was one of the few charming adaptations to actually be charming, and the Sun said that Cranford and Zombies was an outrage that the clever-clever elites were trying to put over on the real, hard-working salt of the earth, and Lisa Dillon caught in love nest: DILLY-DALLYING!

Back in real life, those who watch television only over the internet can catch up by watching Cranford itself over the next couple of days, and then watch Return to Cranford (no, really, that’s what they called it, although I can’t imagine who would be returning, unless… ) anytime in the next month or so.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 30, 2009

Board, Board, Board

What are the ten best board games?

The Gaurniad’s list is actually called ten of the best, so one might think that they are just claiming that these are among the best. However, the caption is a reference to six of the best or more generally n+k of the best, a reference to corporal punishment, or more broadly to whipping, the sort of wink at hipness and oh-how-comfortable-we-are-with-the-idea-of-B/D-sex that I rather like about the newspaper, even while being aware of how intolerably bourgie it all is. Sigh. Anyway, Anna Tims claims that these are, in fact, the ten best, in the caption to the first, so that’s all right.

Here’s the list, for those of you who can’t be arsed to click through: Backgammon, Pictionary, Cluedo (what we here call Clue), Settlers of Catan, Diplomacy, Alhambra, Mouse Trap!, Othello, Acquire and Scrabble.

First of all, Pictionary is not a good board game. I know you can purchase an edition with a board, but seriously. Not. So that’s out.

Second, I haven’t played Alhambra, so it’s off the list. No, I don’t care. Whatever other criteria there are (influence? popularity? education? long-term playability? The ability to implement House Rules for the MFQ?), one criterion must be that YHB has played it, otherwise what’s the point of having the list at all?

Third, I’m taking Diplomacy off the list. I just am.

Now. We have two dice-around-the-board games, neither of which is Parcheesi. My inclination is to replace Backgammon with Trouble, which is Parcheesi, only with a Pop-O-Matic, so that takes care of both the inclusion of a Parcheesi-like game and the inclusion of a game with some sort of magnificent-in-the-abstract-but-unfortunate-in-reality mechanism. It’s not as good a game as Sorry (the game of sweet rewengi), but it is Pop-O-Matic, and Sorry, alas, is not.

About filling the Diplomacy spot, then. The obvious choice is Risk. The problem with Risk as a board game specifically is that the movement of pieces on the board is the main flaw in the game. It’s a better game on the computer than on a table, and that seems to me to knock a game off the list. Perhaps that’s harsh, but I think I’m going to leave Risk off the list even if that’s harsh. Which leaves us without a war-and-strategy kind of game, so I’m going with Chess. Sometimes the easy answer is the right one.

And the Pictionary parlor-game-with-a-board spot goes to Cranium. Not a hard choice.

The last empty spot is going to APBA, on my list. APBA, for those who don’t know, is a table top baseball game (the letters theoretically stand for American Professional Baseball Association), and I can’t really defend the choice of APBA over Strat-O-Matic or Pursue the Pennant or any of the other tabletop baseball games, except that I like APBA better and still have the boards. And I think the list really needs to have one simulation game; some folk will choose a railroad game, but they will be wrong.

Before I finish my list, I’m just going to consider: Othello or Blokus? Well, Othello, I guess, although I might go a different way tomorrow. Mouse Trap! or The Game of Life? Life, clearly. Is there any way to put Sequence or Mancala on the list? No, not really.

I think that’s my list: Trouble, Cranium, Clue, Settlers of Catan, Chess, APBA, The Game of Life, Othello, Acquire and Scrabble.


Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 29, 2009

Now, it's Mueller Time

My three favorite Yom Kippur jokes:

A young woman is attempting to enter the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. Gronom Ochs, one of the ushers, stops her and demands to see a ticket. She explains that she doesn’t have a ticket, she isn’t a member of the synagogue, but that she was sent from Dr. Hochfleisch’s office with an important message. Gronom tells her that she can’t go in without a ticket. She impresses on him the importance of the message, the urgency, how much Dr. Hochfleisch would want to be interrupted even on this day. Gronom Ochs is impassive. Finally, on the verge of tears, she begs him to let her deliver her message, saying that she will be fired if she returns with it. Well, all right, says Gronom Ochs, but if I catch you praying…

Jerry Mendelbaum comes up to the rabbi in the gap between the afternoon and evening services. Rabbi, says he, You are a fine speaker, but you should work on your range of topics. Why, every time I come in to shul you talk about Jonah!

The Cantor, before chanting Kol Nidre, warns the congregation that they are not there as spectators to be moved by the prettiness of the melody, or by the purity of the voice. His prayer, like their prayer, will be heard through the mercy of the Divine, not through individual merit. Despite all the vocal training and experience, in the eyes of the Divine, he is nothing. The Rabbi adds his two cents: the congregation must not rely on the cantor and the rabbi to intercede with the Divine, to atone for them or to do the work of teshuvah. For all his position and learning, he says, in the eyes of the Divine, he is nothing. In the silence that falls after this display of humility and piety, the shammes is heard saying under his breath: Lord, hear me according to your Mercy and not my merit, for in your eyes I am nothing. At which the chazzan nudges the Rabbi and mutters Nu, look who thinks he’s nothing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 26, 2009

Rest in Peace, Ted Kennedy

Your Humble Blogger had often called Edward Kennedy our liberal lion. I was moved and proud to have voted for him, back when he was my Senator. And it turns out that I miss him, now that he’s dead.

I mean, I knew he was dying. I’d been following the story about his succession, and the attempt to avoid leaving the seat vacant during the vote over the health finance reform package. And it’s not like I knew the man. As far as I know, I’ve been in the same room with him only twice. Once was in the Senate chamber, when I was up in the gallery and he looked like he was wearing one of those rubber Teddy Kennedy masks. And the other was in a corridor in Cambridge where I almost ran right into him. That’s it. I don’t think I ever even bothered to call his office; he was going to vote the way I wanted my Senator to vote, so why bother?

And, of course, I don’t know that I would have wanted to know the man personally. He was a mass of contradictions, as people are, but particularly in the way that children of wealth, privilege and opportunity can be when they have a tradition of public service. I don’t think I would have liked him when he was a young party animal, and I don’t think I would have liked him when he was a middle-aged drunk, and I don’t think he would have liked me when he was a sober old man. So there’s not a loss of personal connection, or the hope or possibility of personal connection.

So why am I feeling so bereft?

Perhaps, I think, it is because Teddy Kennedy was a great Senator, and not only a great Senator but a legislator after my own heart. A lefty who worked with conservatives, because the important thing is getting the government to govern. A man who believed that compromise was better than imposing one viewpoint, even his own. A legislator who, eventually, buckled down to the job of legislating as being public service of a high order, not a stepping stone to Executive office or any other task. The kind of public servant that I wish I could be. My abilities don’t stretch in that direction, really, and anyway I haven’t the kind of urge to public service that would take me from my comfortable family. But I wish I had that urge, and I wish I had those abilities, and I don’t.

I also find it very plausible that Edward Kennedy will be the last great American Senator. Anything could happen, from the collapse of the entire national structure in a civil war fought through floods and fire to a constitutional reawakening that eliminates the upper house altogether. Or, simply, it could just happen. Most Senators serve two or three terms, are good or bad or indifferent, and then that’s it. A handful stay in the Senate for longer, take seniority, gather staff and colleagues, and make a lasting impact over a long time. Of those handful, some are working for good, some for evil, and some for themselves.

It’s still a young country, despite being senior to most other national structures at this point. A couple of hundred years of the Senate. A hundred years of direct election, if that makes a difference (and I think it does). A handful of standouts. Clay, Calhoun, LaFollette, Webster, Taft, Norris, Vandenberg, Wagner, Hayden, Pell. Byrd. Kennedy. The historical verdict goes up and down on these people: it is not altogether flippant to ask about Ted Kennedy great Senator or the Greatest Senator? but that’s not something to try to answer today. I hope, though, we have other legislators as good, and maybe someday better. If we do, I believe that that legislator will have been inspired by (and warned by) Ted Kennedy’s example. Which is the legacy a man like that should have.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 20, 2009

Drawing on walls

Your Humble Blogger has been trying to figure out what to write about the fabulous Sol LeWitt Exhibit at MassMoca, which I visited last week. Some of y’all may be familiar with Mr. LeWitt, Greater Hartford’s greatest artist, and some of y’all not so much. I have been a big fan for, well, for quite some time. I don’t remember if it goes back before an exhibit at MFA, Boston in the fall of 1994, or whether that was my first introduction. I do remember being amazed by the works I saw then, both the large scale and small scale stuff (although the structures didn’t really move me, and still don’t). I took a long time at that exhibition, which I could do, because I had no children, and because my Best Reader also was blown away, although by somewhat different things.

What knocked me out? I’ll try to explain it, but I doubt I’ll convince anybody who hasn’t seen the stuff. You know, it occurs to me that I’ve been saying for some time that people (in my experience) seem to not be knocked out by Mark Rothko’s stuff, and then some of them have what I have taken to calling a Rothko Moment, a sort of epiphany where they stand in front of his stuff, and suddenly they find it so emotionally moving that their entire experience of modern art changes entirely. I’ve never had a Rothko Moment, but perhaps half-a-dozen people have described to me their Rothko Moments whilst I have nodded and shrugged and envied them. What I’m saying, people are different one to another, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. But with art, and particularly (I think) with non-representative modern art, that means that some of y’all will have already had your Sol LeWitt moment, some of you will never have it, and some will have it someday, and nothing I say is going to really change that, nor should it. But still.

What enthralled me, from the beginning, about Mr. LeWitt’s stuff, is a combination of a rigorous and austere mathematical conceptualism with a stunning, visceral almost frighteningly dominant beauty. Works that are (seemingly) generated from an arbitrary set of rules turn out to be breathtakingly fabulous. Works that stunned me with their visual drama turned out to be the result of obsessive repetition guided by meticulous instruction. Oh, not everything works for me, but again and again I find myself having a multiple-level reaction: first knocked over by the sheer look of the thing, the sumptuousness or the clarity or the… well, the beauty of the thing, one way or another. Then, on close inspection, discovering the pattern or the rule. Then, stepping back again, finding new patterns—or attempting to find them and being frustrated or dazzled out of them.

A few years later, I saw a piece in the Tate Modern, I believe it was A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations, and I was knocked out again. I don’t have a picture of it to link to, and I don’t think that a photograph would give you any sense of the piece itself. All it is, really, is a wall, divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, the leftmost part (looking at it) having very fine vertical lines in black pencil, the next part having very fine horizontal lines in yellow pencil, the next having very fine diagonal lines in red pencil going from upper right to lower left, and the next having very fine diagonal lines in blue pencil going from upper left to lower right. That’s four parts. The fifth (counting from your left while looking at it) has both vertical black lines and horizontal yellow lines; the sixth has vertical black lines and diagonal red lines, the seventh has vertical black lines and diagonal blue lines. We are now at the middle of the wall, right? Proceeding, the eighth panel from the left (or the right) has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal red lines, the ninth has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal blue lines, the tenth has diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. We’re two-thirds of the way to the end. The next part, eleventh from the left, fifth from the right, has vertical black lines, horizontal yellow lines, and diagonal red lines. The twelfth has vertical black, horizontal yellow and diagonal blue lines. The thirteenth has a naked lady. No, just wanted to see if you had nodded off there, the thirteenth has vertical black, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines, and the fourteenth has horizontal yellow, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. And the last, the rightmost panel, has all four.

Boy, that doesn’t sound pretty at all, does it?

But it was. It was gorgeous. The wall starts out (viewing it from left to right from across the room) very delicate and pale grey, yellow, red (pink, really) and blue, and then darkens, changes hue and intensity. Toward the middle, the colors combine with the patters to hit a serene beauty; toward the right, an ominous complexity. As you walk closer to the wall, you see the different colors that combine; from very close, you can finally see the lines, crossing in patterns. The edges where the panels meet were fascinating as well; from a distance, they seem almost blurry, particularly toward the right side, while when you get your nose up almost to the wall, they are crisp and mechanical.

And I want to emphasize this part of the experience—when you are close enough to see the individual lines on one part, you can see the lines on perhaps the panels just on either side, but when you turn your head a bit to see the panels further down the wall, your eyes can’t make out the individual lines and you begin to mix the colors together in your head. To see the piece, to really look at it, you need to look from a distance, look from the middle, then put your nose an inch away, walk the length of the wall, weave back and forth across the room, attempt to stand in two or three places at once, and finally, both frustrated and satiated, walk away from it.

I could have happily spent twenty minutes in that room, just looking at the wall.

That drawing was not, alas, one of the works included in the retrospective at MassMoca. There were similar works, and works that I had a similar response to, but not that one.

And then, when we moved here, there was a visit to the Atheneum, where not only were there two lovely wall drawings of swooping vibrant colors, but also (at the moment of the visit) a delicate wall drawing of colored pencil lines and four smallish drawings-on-paper in a series called Scribbles that I hadn’t seen before. Or seen anything like them, really. There are a few at MassMOCA, but those first works I saw and the magnificent one at the New Britain Museum of American Art are not there.

The Scribbles (and here I will describe them in a way that makes them sound utterly boring and devoid of beauty) as a series all involve fine-point graphite lines, black ones on most of the works (the ones I like, anyway), drawn on the wall in, well, scribbles, to a density that is defined according to rules Mr. LeWitt has set out. Those rules create large images that are visible from across the room: a cross, a square, a horizontal bar, a vertical line. Sometimes the large figure appears to be shaded, with a gradation of dark to light; sometimes the line is abrupt. When you go close, you can see the tangle of individual pencil lines, invisible from the distance. When you go close, the large figures become invisible, too, lost in the tangle of individual pencil lines. In the darkest parts of the drawing, the scribbling is so dense that you can’t make out the individual pencil lines at all.

There are no straight lines in these works; the impression of straight lines comes from the aggregate made by scribbles turning on themselves rather than heading out (or in). But that impression is there. Looking carefully at the border between regions of different density gives an impression of movement contrasted with solidity, freedom and license, order and randomness. When the darkest level of density gives way to gray, I get the impression of lines breaking free, emerging into open space. Or returning to the dark. And I step toward the wall and away from it myself, exchanging one view for another, each step toward the wall or away from it changing the entire piece.

I have already gone on much too long, particularly as Gentle Readers who have no experience with Sol LeWitt will not get that from this note. Photographs of his work can be lovely, but they don’t convey the experience of seeing them in person. In particular, since part of what I love about his stuff is the tension between large-scale beauty, viewed from a distance, and small-scale rigor, viewed up close, there is no good way to duplicate that experience with photographs (even a video of the Scribbling, while a terrific video in itself, doesn’t do that). But I hope I’ve conveyed that my experience over a decade or so has been tremendous, and that I have had several experiences of seeing new Sol LeWitt works, new to me at any rate, that looked utterly different from the works I had seen before, but that were clearly connected with the same concepts he had been interested in all along. And which I found breathtaking.

Sol LeWitt is the only visual artist that I have had that experience with over the years. I’m not sure if I have really had that with musicians. David Byrne, perhaps, would put out an album (Rei Momo, f’r’ex) that expressed fundamental David-Byrne-ness-osity in a different musical vocabulary. Or Paul Simon. There are playwrights and perhaps filmmakers, too, although I can’t off the top of my head think of any. Novelists? Well, anyway, I hope you have such an experience with some artist of some kind, Gentle Reader, because it is terrific.

Because, you see, there I was, going through the exhibit. Which is, I must say, a really remarkable achievement, and I think in itself justifies the entire existence of MassMoca. There is nowhere else capable of displaying a retrospective of this size, and they came into existence to do precisely that, and they have done it, and done it extraordinarily well. The exhibit is wonderful, and I can’t think of any way they could have improved on it, and I hope that everybody who is interested at all gets up to North Adams to see it. Y’all have plenty of time. I’ll be back in ten years, if I don’t go sooner. Anyway, there I was going through the exhibit, and I went in on the second floor, which is more or less how you go in to it. The floors go up by chronology, so the first floor is the earliest stuff, the second floor in the middle, and the top floor the most recent, including the Scribbles and all. And as I say, I went in on the second floor. And there were some pieces that worked really well ( including Wall Drawing 343 and a stunningly fabulous corridor of Wall Drawing 413 and Wall Drawing 414), together with a bunch of stuff that didn’t work as well for me. And we went up to the third floor, where the Scribble are, and that was wonderful. And then we went around a corner and saw Wall Drawing 821A, which was cool, and Wall Drawing 822, which was absolutely incredible, and also Wall Drawing 824 which was just luscious.

I’ve put links there to things with photographs, mostly as identifiers, so that if you get a chance to go, you will know which ones absolutely melted Your Humble Blogger. I see no reason for anyone to be melted by the photographs. Although, if you look at the time lapse for Wall Drawing 822, toward the end (after they’ve taken the brown paper off), you can get some sense of the way the piece interacts with the light. But the richness of the thing, no. But you can, I suppose, see in the photographs that they don’t look like his other pieces, and yet they are fundamentally Sol LeWitt works. And I can’t tell you that you would like them, Gentle Reader, because people are different one to another, but I can tell you that I was transfixed.

And then I went down to the first floor and saw some of the earlier, funnier wall drawings, which was also a terrific experience. And then my eyes were full and I had to go and sit down and drink iced tea.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July

The thing, for me, about America the Beautiful, is that bit at the end, the plea for the grace of the Divine. It’s as if the writer, Katharine Lee Bates, overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscape, longs for a comparable beauty of the populace. It’s interesting (to YHB) that the poet chose fraternity as the crown of virtue, rather than (f’r’ex) liberty or equality, but I find the sentiment lovely.

I’ve never quite felt that way, myself, about the landscape. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the desert. I saw the majestic mountains, and they were purple, and the skies were spacious and still are. But the plains weren’t very fruited, other than prickly pears, and as for grain, well, not so much. There’s a sense of America as cornucopia that never got instilled in me—not because of an urban childhood of concrete and steel but because of a suburban childhood of cactus and roadrunners.

Or it is because I’m a city boy at heart. Or because of a late-twentieth-century alienation from The Land that afflicts our society at large. Some reason or other.

The land, though, isn’t a great part of my love for my country. I’m all about Representative Democracy, equality under the law, tyrannaphobia, the Liberal Enlightenment, decent respect to the opinions of mankind, due process, disestablishment, that sort of thing.

And a sort of alloy-ism, a strength through admixture, an emphasis on the sparks that come off the friction between peoples. The pluribus part. You know, at pretty nearly the same historical moment that Ms. Bates was writing America the Beautiful, Israel Zangwill was writing The Melting Pot:

…America is Gd’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of Gd you’ve come to—these are the fires of Gd. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! Gd is making the American.

And I’m not in sympathy with Mr. Zangwill here (although I do, I’m afraid, sympathize with his blindness to the other continents, whilst pointing out yet another example of blah blah blah) and prefer our modern idea of a mosaic to the melting pot of a century ago. But this is closer, certainly, to my idea of the Beautiful America, and it, too, is crowned with brotherhood.

Perhaps brotherhood is what I am looking for, then. Something that can encompass Ms. Bates and Mr. Zangwill, something that has power well beyond its deserts (or its deserts), something deep and inalienable.

Or, perhaps, it’s this: America is the process of looking for that thing that will crown the American Good. Brotherhood, or Peace, or Power, or Liberty, or that Light on the proverbial. The crown isn’t America. The search for the crown is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 23, 2009


Whatever happened to spaldeens?

You know what spaldeens are, they’re those pink rubber balls, fist-sized, fairly bouncy. My Dad played with them on the streets of the Bronx in the forties. I happened to be thinking about them because we took him back to P.S. 6, where the strip of hip-high molding (not really molding, but an architectural detail much like it) that they used to bounce balls off is still there. Down the block, there was a game of catch going on, probably a mother and daughter, but the point is that they were using a tennis ball.

When I was a kid, we had a variety of games with a variety of balls: big inflatable red balls with lots of bounce for dodgeball and kickball and ga-ga, softballs and hardballs and whiffle balls for baseball-like games, little superballs for, well, just for bouncing around, really, and tennis balls for tennis-like games, and also for playing catch. Racquetballs were a lot like spaldeens, I suppose, although a bit harder. But we never used them.

Were tennis balls much more expensive than spaldeens? Spaldeens wouldn’t be (I’m guessing) quite as good on grass games, being ideally designed to bounce off walls, and the big suburban shift presumably led to a shift in demand there. But there were certainly plenty of urban kids, and even in my suburban neighborhood there were plenty of places to play on blacktop against a wall, and we certainly did. Or wall ball, or stair ball, or off-the-roof—well, I can see why a tennis ball would be better for off-the-roof, and a whiffle ball better yet. Still.

The Internet tells me that Spalding has been making the spaldeen again for ten years or so, after not making if for a while during my teenage years. My kids mostly play with tennis balls and whiffle balls, though (and soccer balls—I think I knew one kid that had a soccer ball of his own, and he was a serious jock), and I would have to make a special trip to get a spaldeen for them. And then, you know, our yard isn’t big enough for stickball, and we don’t let them play in the street.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 30, 2009

It's what's for breakfast

So. The Youngest Member, when queried this morning about his breakfast wishes, announced that he wanted cookies, ice cream, cake, cupcake, and a chocolate milkshake. We, his parents, explained to him that those were desserts, and that they were not breakfast foods. Nobody eats cake for breakfast we told him, and then a few minutes later, in the kitchen, I appended to my Best Reader except doughnuts, of course. She agreed. Doughnuts, clearly an allowable breakfast food. Sure, it’s a treat, still, it’s nothing at all like having a piece of cake for breakfast, right?

Although, as my Best Reader pointed out, coffee cake was also potentially an allowable breakfast food. Not just corn muffins and bran muffins and blueberry muffins, but chocolate chip muffins are allowable as well, as are (again, as special treats) those chocolate muffins. Totally different from cake.

Also, danish. And pain au chocolat. And pancakes, with syrup, and possibly with chocolate chips. Also Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, of course, and Honey Grahams, but not under any circumstances Graham crackers. Bread and honey, approved for breakfast. Honey cake, not approved for breakfast.

Apple danish, by the way, perfectly fine for breakfast. Apple strudel, OK. Apple pie, no. Pumpkin pie only allowable for breakfast in the state of Vermont.

Also, milkshakes must have some coffee in them. Right? Or am I wrong here?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 25, 2008

Puff Piece: Northern Exposure

Thanks to the generosity of a couple of Gentle Readers, Your Humble Blogger has been watching Northern Exposure, which was my favorite television show for a few years. I don’t have a favorite television show any more, except perhaps Jeopardy!, which I don’t even watch very often. I wonder how many favorite television shows I’ve ever had? The Muppet Show, as a kid. I liked Barney Miller and Cheers a lot, but I don’t know whether either was ever really a favorite. I think, restricting it to shows that I was watching when they were being produced, and where I watched or tried to watch new episodes weekly, it would be Northern Exposure, The Muppet Show and Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Digression: Have y’all seen The Games? Listening to Mssrs. Clarke and Dawe is like attending a seminar on the use of rhythm in comedy, only without having to do any reading beforehand, and without anybody reading any analytical papers. OK, it’s nothing like a seminar. But why would you want it to be? And the good news is that they’re still at it. End digression.

Anyway, if you had asked me, back when they were still making episodes of Northern Exposure, why I liked it so much, I probably would have said that I liked the characters and the actors. The actors really are terrific: John Cullum is wonderful as Holling, his face and voice always worth close attention; John Corbett is lovely to look at and listen to as Chris-in-the-morning, with wonderful rhythms in both speech and gesture; Cynthia Geary’s Shelley is hilarious; Janine Turner’s Maggie is sexy; Elaine Miles is magnificent as Marilyn. And, more surprisingly, nobody is bad. In a big cast, nobody is bad. It’s amazing.

At the end, during that last terrible season and the decade or more following, if you asked me what was so good about the show, I would have talked about the incredibly sophisticated structure, where three (usually three) subplots would play around with a single theme, sometimes commenting on each other and sometimes looking at different aspects. Take, for instance, the eighth episode of season three: “A-Hunting We Will Go”. The main plot is that Fleischman, after being repulsed by the idea of hunting for sport, decides to try it. The secondary plot is that Ruth-Anne has a cast on her leg, leading Ed to cosset her, particularly when he finds out she is seventy-five years old. The third plot is about Holling discovering that after fifty-odd years of hunting (first with bullets and then with a camera), he would rather stay home with Shelley and tend the bar. Craig Volk, the writer, weaves the plots together very loosely, and doesn’t (imao) make a big heavy-handed deal of the mortality/age/death deal, but then he also doesn’t shy away from a big gesture: the episode ends with Ruth-Anne and Ed dancing on the grave plot he gives her as a birthday present. This structure-of-threes really is a strength of the show, although I think I exaggerated it a bit to myself; some episodes have unrelated subplots, and some related plots are heavy-handed or dopey.

As I’m watching them now, though, with the magic of little shiny discs (and, did I mention, friends who don’t mind lending things out for quite an unreasonably long time), I am struck that the real strength of the show is the dialogue. There’s a Northern Exposure style, a heightened rhetoric, long sentences with flights of exaggeration and cultural reference, a magnificent creation that is nothing like the way actual people speak and that I could listen to for ever so long. Yes, the characters are different and have different speech patterns which largely hold constant from show to show, but even the most taciturn characters are prone to come out with the most amazing turns of phrase. In one episode recently, Maurice was talking about Alan Shepard’s tiny feet. Adam spews bizarre and hyperbolic bile. Ed pops an obscure movie reference, or a blockbuster reference as if it were obscure. Fleischman, of course, never stops talking, and his stream of complaint and criticism is annoying, but I have to think that if there were the faintest hint of naturalism in it, if it sounded like any complaining that anybody had ever done in real life, it would be so annoying the show would be unwatchable.

My Best Reader and I are about halfway through the third season. I think we started watching at some point during that season, although it’s also plausible that we started watching in the fourth season and have seen a few of the earlier episodes on reruns or syndication. Mostly, though, we’re watching shows we haven’t seen before, in a series we’ve seen a lot of. It makes a good last-thing-in-the-evening-before-going-upstairs entertainment; enjoyable but not (usually) too distressing, or hilarious either for that matter. Comforting. Good television. There’s something in each episode to chat about as we’re closing up the house, but not enough to keep us up late dissecting it.

What seems strange to me is the sense that I don’t really remember it as it was, that we’ve romanticized it, inflated its qualities in our memories, and I think that we really have done that, but that I like it anyway. I’m much more used to coming back to some favorite after many years and being disappointed; the other common (and more enjoyable) experience is to find that the book or movie or whatever really is as good as I remember. This is different. It’s not what I remember, but it’s still good. Has that ever happened to you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 10, 2008

Puff Piece: The Morgan Bible

Well, darn. I happened to come across a lovely facsimile of the Morgan Picture Bible, and I wanted to talk about how wonderful it was, but I’ve just wasted half-an-hour trying to find a good picture of 15v, and not only did I fail to find one, but I lost the available time for posting.

There is a scan of the individual quadrants of the page at Medieval Tymes. The image of the upper right, Samson pulling down the pillars (Judges 23-30) gives an idea of how magnificent, crazy, funny, and moving these images are, but sadly gives no sense of the whole page, and the way that the four images interact. The Morgan Library itself has an on-line exhibition with eighteen full-page images: 23v gives a sense of both the violence and the artists’ freedom from formal restraint, and 27v shows the startling technique of allowing the figures to cross from one quadrant to another. Make sure to use the zoom feature, once you’ve got a sense of the page; the details on these are superb.

Sadly, 19v is only available from Medieval Tymes in bits and pieces; in that one Peninah actually leans from the upper right into the upper left in order to stick out her tongue at Hannah, which is even better because Peninah is already in the upper left quadrant, smiling and well-behaved.

Anyway, as I said, I’m out of time for now. But it’s wonderful stuff.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 1, 2008


So at one point, in my misspent youth, I was misspending some youth at a party, when I overheard a conversation about Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag”. A fellow was saying something about how brilliant and subtle it was, and how in the line everybody say his own/kyrie eleison, you couldn’t get the joke unless you know about the petitioning portion of the Mass and where it was in relation to the Ave Maria, or something like that. I don’t remember. It’s perfectly plausible that the fellow was Your Humble Blogger; other than my utter lack of knowledge of the Catholic liturgy either before or after the second Vatican Council, it sounds like something I would say. Actually, particularly keeping in mind the utter lack of knowledge, it sounds like something I would say.

And, like so much Your Humble Blogger says, it is utter bullshit. Obviously, you can get the joke and enjoy the song without detailed knowledge of the Catholic liturgy, because as a matter of observable phenomena, people in fact do. There are perhaps different levels of enjoyment, sure. But there’s also a tendency to say that anybody who is enjoying a thing on a different level than I am is in fact enjoying it wrong, which is to say they aren’t really enjoying it at all.

Which brings me to the Music Hall. Every now and then, I think to myself Lad (I call meself lad ’cos I’ve known meself since I was that ’igh), Lad, I say, How can anyone possibly enjoy [Sgt. Pepper/My Fair Lady/Beyond the Fringe/Topper/Alfred Hitchcock/David Bowie/Prime Minister’s Question Time/Morecambe and Wise/Douglas Adams/Flanders and Swann/P.G. Wodehouse/Bare Naked Ladies/SCTV/life itself] without having an intense and pleasurable familiarity with the great tradition of the music hall? The answer of course is that people enjoy it the way they do enjoy it. My own familiarity with the Music Hall tradition is pretty weak, actually. I can sing part of “Burlington Bertie” and “A Couple of Swells”, all of “Has Anybody Seen My Ship” and the chorus to “My Old Man Said Follow the Van”. That’s about it.

Besides, a familiarity with the Music Hall is like a familiarity with jazz. There’s an awful lot of it. It isn’t all the same. It’s different every time, so you had to be there, and you weren’t. Even if you were there, you weren’t there all the time. And besides, what is it, anyway? How do you know whether something is, or it isn’t?

So. Music Hall, to me, is a certain style of music, a certain style of comedy, a certain style of dance, and a certain style of performance. Or rather a set of those styles. I can hear it or see it, when I hear it and see it. It’s about a particular set of rhythms, a penchant for particular kinds of puns and rhymes, and most of all a particular relationship with the audience. And, like jazz, its influence pops up in all kinds of things, and you really don’t need to be aware of that influence to enjoy the things, but if you are, like I am, well then you win, don’t you?

And in the absence of a point of any kind, a joke that I consider to be very Music Hall, courtesy of Noel Coward:

BERTIE: ’ello, ’ello, ’ello, where was you last night?
ALGIE: Where was I?
BERTIE: I say, where was you last night?
ALGIE: At the cemetery.
BERTIE: At the cemetery?
ALGIE: At the cemetery.
BERTIE: Anyone dead?
ALGIE: All of ’em.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 10, 2008

Noah Webster and his 'hood

Your Humble Blogger’s home town library has been renovating the main branch. It’s only been my home town for a couple of years, and in fact the main branch closed a month after we moved here, and remained closed for fourteen months. During that stretch, we all made do with two branch libraries that are both fine, fine, branches, but they are branches. Small. Not large.

The point, though, is that after all this time, our library has reopened. At last. There was a gala reopening celebration, with a band and clowns and drinks and ribbon-cutting and mayoral speeches and general fabulousness, and it was packed. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of people. Throngs. Parents and kids, little old ladies, professional types, hipsters, beautiful people, important people, riffraff, wanderers, madmen, saints. The whole town turned out. It was amazing.

That’s all. Just thought you’d like to know: YHB lives in a town which turns out in the hundreds for a library opening. I win.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 24, 2007

An idea for Gentle Readers and their money

Your Humble Blogger has been reading Tyler Green's Modern Art Notes over at ArtsJournal, because, well, I'm interested in Modern Art, and he’s an interesting writer. And if two-thirds of the notes aren’t actually all that interesting, then it doesn’t take that much time to scan them and move on. Mr. Green sometimes talks about artists I don’t much care about, but sometimes I do care about them after he’s talked about them, which is pretty good, if you ask me.

Anyway, the reason I mention it is that Mr. Green has been doing two weeks of DonorsChoose. I had been unfamiliar with DonorsChoose, but it's clearly a wonderful thing. It's a sort of microphilanthropy aimed at education. Teachers (or administrators, or parent-teacher organizations, I suppose) can list a project that they need some money for, say a couple of hundred dollars for some art supplies, or a thousand dollars for an LCD projector, or a few hundred for a set of reference books. And then you, Gentle Reader, can drop a twenty on one of them. Or a fifty. Or a five. You can pick a school in your hometown, or even better, a school in the nearby town that has real problems. Or you can pick a project you like, some sort of thing you happen to be keen on. Math? Reading? Music? Knock yourself out.

It’s not the Untied Way. But like the Untied Way, it addresses only short-term needs. It doesn't do a damn’ thing about the structural problems, or about the future of education, or about the future of the country. What it does, it helps a few teachers and a few kids, and a few parents, too, I suppose. Yes, I would prefer that we address the thing systematically. Yes, the idea of public schools includes the idea of public funding. So don’t think that being a Donor who Chooses relieves you of the obligation (in a democratic society) from talking and voting and working to create a culture and a community that doesn’t need DonorsChoose. Or the Untied Way. Or food banks. But neither does doing that good democratic stuff relieve you of the obligation to help teach children, to feed the hungry, to keep people from having to give birth in a barn.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 3, 2007


It occurred to me, the other day, that there’s an odd little cultural shift that’s taken place in undergraduate academic life. In my day (before 1990), as I expect for a generation or more previous, a lazy student would find it substantially easier to do the minimum amount of research for a particular topic in books, rather than in journals. Oh, if you wanted to be diligent, there was the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which involved looking up a topic, and then getting a citation, and then probably looking up the journal in the card catalogue and going and finding it or maybe paging it or even working with microfiche or microfilm. But if you were at an institution with a reasonable library, and you had one title or author to get you to the right place, you could easily pick up three or four books from one shelf to make up your sources for a short paper. Easy as pie.

Now, though, from the comfort of your dormitory, you can not only search for citations but get the actual text of a zillion articles through ProQuest or Ingenta or JSTOR or ABI/INFORM or Educator’s Reference or PubMed or the publishers’ sites. Some of the databases have the citations hot-linked from one article to the next, so you can just brip-brip-brip! download a whole paper’s worth of resources. And suddenly, all the steps that had been previous invisible, because they were assumed to be a natural part of doing any research, are gone: you don’t have to physically go to the library (which might involve walking, or using your Human Transport Device), you don’t have to learn any catalogue system at all (because the search engine will work on keywords), you don’t have to research when the library is open, you don’t have to bend down to look at a bottom shelf or stretch to the top shelf, you don’t have to physically lift a stack of books, and you don’t have to risk being distracted by any books on any topics other than your own.

I don’t think I ever cited a single scholarly journal in my undergraduate career. I did get a high score at Addams Family Pinball, though. And I read a lot of books. I wonder if there has been (as I expect) an enormous increase in citations for scholarly journals at the undergraduate level, and at the same time a precipitous decrease in citations for books. On the whole, I suspect that would be a Good Thing, although of course there are drawbacks and disadvantages. I’m not, of course, saying that books are outdated, or that the bricks-and-books library has outlived its usefulness. Books are still books, and there’s a cachet there, even for undergraduates. But I suspect that journals and journal articles are where much of the serious scholarly advance occurs, and that even a limited exposure to that while still undergraduates would give students an idea of what their fields are like at the next level, while there’s still time to avoid graduate school.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 30, 2007

and I mees you most of all, mah darleeng, when ...

Your Humble Blogger has been writing a lot more hatchet jobs than puff pieces lately, huh? Well, I was actually thinking about writing a hatchet job about my local NPR station, because I’m not satisfied with their weekday lineup. Yes, All Things Considered, and yes, Morning Edition, but the two local shows are very weak and I don’t like Talk of the Nation anymore. So I was thinking about grousing for a note, when the station caused me to Learn Something Interesting, which is kinda cool, ain’t it?

This comes from putting together two things, one of which was a news item by Nancy Cohen called New study links fall colors with soil nutrients, which makes the point that trees in crappy soil need to drain all that last drop of sweet, sweet chlorophyll from their leaves before shutting down for the winter, which makes (through chemical processes I fundamentally don’t understand) the leaves redder, yellower, oranger, brighter, vibranter than the crappy autumn leaves you get in places with good soil.

Now, I put that together with some stuff I heard in an episode of Where We Live, Connecticut's changing forests, with John Dankosky's guests Don Smith and Les Mehrhoff. One of the ways that Connecticut’s forests have changed is that, well, three hundred years ago, the whole state was forested, because hardly anybody lived here, and the people who lived here weren’t farmers. As more people moved here and farmed, more of the land was cleared. Eventually, most of the state was farmland, with (comparatively) hardly any trees.

The problem is that Connecticut’s soil is crappy. Oh, how crappy it is. Seriously. I know, I grew up in the desert, and couldn’t tell arable land from a hole in the ground, except for the hole, obviously, but even I can tell that the clay, sand and rock in the soil around here makes for crap farmland. And, in fact, the moment the dark satanic mills started employing people, the farms were abandoned and went to forest. Now, the state is mostly forest again, although with different trees.

As I understand it, the trees around the state now are mostly trees that are good at getting that last drop of sweet, sweet chlorophyll from their leaves before shutting down for the winder, trees that won the fight for scarce resources, trees that look really, really great in October.

Now, follow the economics. First, we cut down the pine trees, make houses and furniture out of the wood, and live off the (crap) farmland. Then we abandon the farmland, and live off the mills, while we let the maples take over what used to be farmland. Then, we close the mills and open B&Bs and antique shops and live off the tourists who want to see the maples turn colors. It’s all connected. Now, if it turns out that abandoned mills become the best places to make matter transport devices or that old maples are the secret to living with climate change, we’ll be getting somewhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 19, 2007

No more golfing, no more cats

Your Humble Blogger is saddened by the news that Alan Coren has died. I have a fondness for Alan Coren, mostly born of a handful of hilarious essays in Golfing for Cats. The interview with a bitter, alcoholic middle-aged Pooh Bear was stunning. There was a marvelous bit about disguising airports against terrorists that was probably funnier back then. There was a very nasty and hilarious 1984 joke. The Times obituary, as one would expect, is both perfect and bizarre. “He was the most reliable of contributors. He always filed early and wrote to the length required.” Wouldn’t you like to have that in your obituary?

Sadly, Mr. Coren also delighted in the use of comic dialect, and not always successfully. In fact, often painfully. Comic dialect is a touchy thing to begin with (nohmeen? nohm’sayn?) and always runs the risk of losing the reader entirely. I never made it more than a page or two into the Idi Amin book or the Miss Lillian Carter book. Still, I don’t demand that everything a writer puts out is wonderful. A decent percentage. And if you write as much as Mr. Coren did, a decent percentage of wonderful might well mean a lot of crap. Sadly, Mr. Coren not writing any more crap means no more good stuff, as well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

In league with the ... er, women.

It appears that Your Humble Blogger has not yet done a puff piece for the League of Women Voters, one of my favorite organizations. Not that I actually know very much about them, but their information has been tremendously helpful to me as a voter (not, as such, a woman) over the years. They distribute sample ballots, they provide comparisons between candidates and proposals, and they organize debates, speeches and other informational events. They register people, they help them find out where and how to vote, and they encourage involvement in democracy.

You remember me hocking about Walt Whitman? And how the point of democracy is not to create a good government, but to create a good population? We’ve been pretty cranky about that lately here in the Tohu Bohu, and it’s good to remember, sometimes, that the League of Women Voters is not yet a hundred years old, and is in itself a terrific argument for democracy.

One might think, though, that in these internetty days, the LWV would be less important. After all, the local election board can put a sample ballot on-line for your perusal and can make it easy for you to type in your address and get your polling place, complete with map, directions and satellite imagery. The candidates can do that on their own websites, too, as can the political parties and other interested organizations. Anyone can post a comparison between candidates or initiatives, and ask the candidates to respond to a set of questions, or post voting records, report cards on issues, and texts or even videos of speeches.

But somehow I could not get a simple answer to my questions. I’ve been a resident of my (rich, well-educated, white 06119) town for less than two years, and so have not voted in a municipal election yet. It’s clear from yard signs, newspaper reports and local events that we have a town council election, a board of education election and a town clerk election. But every town sets these things up differently, so I have no idea what my own ballot will look like, or who I might vote for. Do town councilmen represent districts, or the town at large? If it’s at large, is it 12-pick-6 or 5-pick-4? Are the candidates’ Parties identified on the ballot? I searched on-line (and some of you know that I have mighty search skills), but I could not find one place that had all the information I wanted. I even tried emailing my Party’s town committee, which has conspicuously failed to update their website for the municipal election. They have not yet responded.

Fortunately, the LWVGreaterHartford sent me an eight-page broadsheet with the sample ballot. Sadly, they don’t seem to have updated their own website in some years, but in print, they win. In addition to the ballot, a nice map of polling places, and some useful information on our new machines, they have responses from the Town Council candidates to six yes-or-no questions and four essay questions, as well as four questions for the candidates for the Board of Education, and some brief information on the Town Clerk candidates.

Now, West Hartford is a Democratic town. It appears that there are nine members on the City Council, six of whom are Democrats. And, strangely enough, in our Town Charter it states

At the elections as hereinbefore provided no political party shall nominate and no elector shall vote for more than six members of the council, and one registrar of voters. In the election of 1997, and quadrennially thereafter, no political party shall nominate and no elector shall vote for more than three members of the board of education, and in the election of 1999, and quadrennially thereafter no political party shall nominate and no elector shall vote for more than three members of the board of education.

So that there can be by law no more than six Democrats out of nine seats. Which seems very odd to me, but there it is. Anyway, the point of the Charter, and the point I was getting at, is that this is a solid Democratic town, just this side of utter one-party dominance. So the Democrats running for Town Council are either incumbents or the party of incumbency; they have to defend what the current Council is doing. But the Republicans are running as challengers, and in a town like this, they certainly don’t have to support the state or national Party policies to get onto the ballot. Which means that when the LWVGH asked “Is the Town sufficiently encouraging and enforcing recycling?” all but one of the Republican candidates said No, and all the Democratic candidates said Yes. When asked “Is the Town sufficiently encouraging citizens to participate in clean energy programs?” all the Republicans said No, and all the Democrats said Yes.

The League doesn’t interpret those responses, you know. It just prints ’em.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 16, 2007

Ready, set, translate!

In honor of National Dictionary Day, the Oxford University Press has decided to make the Oxford Language Dictionaries Online free for the week. That’s right, it’s National Dictionary Day, in honor of Noah “06119” Webster, one hundred and forty-nine years and in the public domain. Go Noah! Go Oxford! Go crazy!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 21, 2007

As if I didn't already have 54 subscriptions on my aggregator

Gentle Readers who have enjoyed reading comments here on this Tohu Bohu by that Gentlest of Readers who signs himself Michael may be overjoyed to discover that he has, according to statute, custom and law, started his own damn blog. And a good blog, too.

In fact, even those Gentle Readers who don’t enjoy his comments, or who are indifferent to them may well enjoy the blog. It’s a lovely combination of personal observation, photography, and general rumination. Without so much nasty old politics.

But that’s not all!

No, if you act now (and even if you don’t), subscribers will receive not one but two bloggers! Michael is joined by the lovely, perceptive and ludicrously overeducated Lisa, another Gentle Reader and sometime commenter on this Tohu Bohu. Lisa has not been what we bloggers call Yglesiastic, or hyperprolific, as yet, but those of us with the feed look forward to her posts as we do to ... um ... good blog posts by people we like. Or like similes, rare but sparkling. Not similes. Other word. Starts with an S. You know.

And it’s possible, I hear, that there may yet be additions to the blurry roster. Hoorah! and Hurray! And so on. It’s called House Out of Focus—ask for it by name!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Post Script: Whilst pimping, I should probably add my pleasure that Phillies Foul Balls is back in business, at least for nine more games, and who knows? Maybe more than that. That’s what I’m reduced to. Hoping the Phillies make the playoffs. Feh. Ah, well.

Post Post Script: At some point, I should list those Gentle Readers who have their own blogs and LJs; there’s My Gracious Host, of course, and Matt Hulan (with Chris), and hapa. In LJ, there are adfamiliares, asmanyaswill, carpenter, Gannet, irilyth, jaipur, psocoptera and Wayman, some of whom comment here under different names, but I believe they all are occasional readers. I’m sure I’m missing some, but I can’t think of who.

May 3, 2007

Puff Piece: Joseph Smolinski

My discovery today at Wadsworth Atheneum was an artist named Joseph Smolinski. He had three pieces showing. One was a version of the Charter Oak that would probably only be funny to Connecticutters. Such as Your Humble Blogger, who found it hilarious. The second is a set of four images of a tree in the seasons, ranging from Spring to Winter. I liked that one a lot, too. And the third was a digital video called Tree Turbine (the artist has only some early work for it on line), about, well, tree turbines.

As of the moment, Mr. Smolinski does not have a slash-co2 page. I think that artists will have awesome slash-co2 pages, don’t you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2007

Puff Piece: Ooh, shiny!

Your Humble Blogger spent much of yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Actually, Your Humble Blogger spent much of yesterday mocking the MFA,B, which richly deserves it, what with their pitiful collection of contemporary art, their baffling insistence on blockbuster shows of not-art, and their risible wall-text. And their delusions of grandeur. Great salad bar, though.

Actually, the thing about the MFA,B is that for all my animosity, I am forced to admit that they have a magnificent collection. Their ancient Greek stuff, for example, particularly the vases, is astonishingly good, and it is incredibly instructive to spend twenty minutes or so looking at a couple of dozen painted vases, each slightly different from the others, giving a picture of the range of subject matter and style, while also making clear the similarities, each to the other, particularly in subject matter and style. Admittedly, you have to really want to find this marvelous collection, because it’s in a darkened corner at the end of a corridor that’s been blocked off for construction. But it’s worth it. And there are more wonderful things: a set of breathtaking works of Arabic calligraphy in marbled paper; a gaggle of Roman heads, of various times and styles; enough Egyptian stuff to satisfy any ten-year-old boy, including, yes, mummies; some insanely lovely Asian scrolls; a tiny ivory Christ as Good Shepherd from Asia with the cutest little-widdle sheep, more like hedgehogs, really; a magnificent Titian-haired St. Catherine, with actual Titian hair; all that Impressionist crap people seem to like; an enormous Medieval Spanish portal, with all the stonework around it; a Sol LeWitt they are hiding somewhere. So, you know, I mock it because it deserves the mockery, but I still go, when I can.

But that’s not what I’m here to puff today. No, I mention the MFA,B because at the moment the cavernous West Lobby space is occupied by a piece called “Artificial Rock # 85”, by Zhan Wang. It’s a big, shiny scholar’s rock made of stainless steel. Now, I walked in to the lobby and went “ooh, shiny scholar’s rock!” and knocked over a bunch of old ladies to go over to it (this is a joke, for those of you unfamiliar with Bostonian Old Ladies in Bombazine; one would hesitate to attempt to knock over a BOLiB with an earthmover. Many of these are the same old ladies who were BOLiB when Francis Dahl wrote about how the Nazis couldn’t knock them over with a Panzer), and it was pretty cool, but when I had a chance to look at it over a long period, I found myself a trifle discontented with it. I liked the idea of it, but it somehow didn’t quite work for me.

So I’m not here to puff the Artificial Rock # 85, either. Now, it happens that a friend of my Gracious Host (and an acquaintance of mine, as well, who I would be happy to be friends with if the opportunity really arose) recently started a blog, on which she posted some lovely photos of scholar’s rocks. Real ones, you understand, not shiny ones. Which reminded me of the Artificial Rock (# 85); I don’t know if Kam would particularly like it, but I wanted to mention it to her. So I decided to do a little internet searching, and immediately found out the name of the artist, which I had of course forgotten, and several pictures of shiny scholar’s rocks, including one at the DeYoung in Golden Gate park, one that’s at the Kennedy Center and one that is evidently in Shanghai.

And then those links led me to a shiny floating island and a shiny rock in a stream, both of which are very cool and, um, shiny, and an installation that evidently just closed up at Williams of a shiny cityscape that looks very cool indeed. And the flickr tag for Zhan Wang has a bunch of pictures of what appears to be a very disturbing installation at the 2006 Shanghai Biennale. Some of those pieces look much cooler than Artificial Rock # 85 (“I thought it would be a series of three—four, at the most"). But that’s not what I’m puffing.

What I am puffed about, at the moment, is that the internet exists. And more than that, that it has accumulated this vast amount of trivia. Much of it searchable. Ten years ago, the internet existed, more or less, but if I had come across something that I was vaguely interested in, a search like that would have been almost totally useless. If I had happened to see a big shiny Scholar’s Rock at more or less the same time that a friend’s friend expressed interest in scholars rocks, I would have been unable to quickly find out the name of the artist I had seen, and probably wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it, because it wouldn’t have been worth it, just to say that there is a big shiny scholar’s rock in Boston at the MFA. And then, I wouldn’t have known that this friend of my friend had an interest in scholar’s rocks anyway.

For all the annoyances of the internet and the bizarre nearness of trivia, it’s terrific to me to have this odd coincidence of interest lead me to a quick, annoyance-free introduction to a handful of pieces of art that I would likely never have seen. Even though I don’t think all the stuff is fantastic, even though I’m not an instant fan. It’s just a nice thing, a new bit of interesting stuff for me, a tasty treat in the box.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2007

Puff Piece: Hugh Laurie

So. Over the last few months, I've been watching DVDs of a couple of television shows featuring the great Hugh Laurie. They are somewhat different. The first is an American drama/soap opera in which Mr. Laurie plays a brilliant and irascible diagnostician (oh, and crazy dope friend); the second is a sketch comedy series he co-wrote and co-starred in with Stephen Fry. Watching the two of them over a shortish period has put me rather in awe of Mr. Laurie as an actor.

House, the medical thing, is an annoyingly terrible show with annoyingly brilliant bits. Mr. Laurie's character is wonderful, mostly wonderfully written, and almost always wonderful to watch. The rest of the characters range from annoying to uninteresting, with occasional good bits for most of them. The show revolves, or ought to, around two kinds of scenes: Doctor House giving snap diagnoses of common conditions based on offhand observations of minute symptoms, and Doctor House coming up with possible diagnoses of extraordinarily rare conditions (or combinations of conditions) based on a whole slew of conflicting and usually disgusting symptoms. I prefer the former, particularly as Mr. Laurie and Doctor House deliver the diagnoses in very funny, terribly rude, and often unexpected ways. The writing and performance mesh perfectly, and his exasperation, misanthropy and arrogance are entertaining to watch, as long as you are not the poor sap in the walk-in clinic who has the doctor glance at your left wrist and tell you that you have glaucoma and besides, your boss is sleeping with your husband. Or whatever. It's a hoot. The other ones are less amusing but are actually engrossing (in addition to being out-grossing) and if they are implausible, they are entertaining enough that I don't mind.

Sadly, the rest of the show is a soap opera about a handful of unpleasant hospital administrators and doctors, who waste my time with their interactions as if I care about them and their fictional futures. La. In addition, the implausibility that works in the show's favor when it turns out that the patient has leprosy (the father, you see, was not actually on secret missions so much as he was tramping around the undeveloped world having indiscriminate sex with whoever he met) works against the show when I am supposed to care whether the ludicrous hospital CEO will be vanquished by the risible chief of surgery. There is an important difference between implausible and fun, and implausible and lame. I surmise that these bits are there to provide opportunities for Dr. House to be inventively and wittily abrasive, except that the setups take up time that could be spent showing Dr. House actually being inventively and wittily abrasive. Ah, well. I am nearly at the end of the first season, something like twenty-'leven episodes, and I don't plan to watch season two.

I was so impressed by Mr. Laurie's performance as Dr. House, though, that I decided to seek out A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which I had known about and never bothered to find and watch. I've seen six episodes of the first series, and they are amateurish, inconsistent, self-indulgent, and very very funny. I was surprised to see that Stephen Fry, for all that he is a very funny man and clearly a terrific writer, is not much of an actor. He plays a very narrow range of characters extraordinarily well, and when he goes outside that range, it's usually a disaster, or at least his performance is. Mr. Laurie, on the other hand, successfully embodies a much wider variety of characters, changing voices, physical habits, classes and rhythms as well as any sketch comedian I've seen (with the exception, I suppose, of Michael Palin, who somehow was always more persuasive in his lower-class characters and madmen than the other Pythons). That doesn't mean that Mr. Laurie is funnier than Mr. Fry, even in my perception. Most of the best bits of Fry and Laurie (so far) have hinged on Mr. Fry, when he is either playing Stephen Fry or one of the overeducated professionals he does so well. Or, particularly, when he is doing both, since the whole show is predicated on an enjoyment of meta-humor, of part of the joke being that Mr. Fry and Mr. Laurie are doing the whole absurd skit comedy thing. They particularly like beginning a skit with an elaborate set-up only to stop the whole thing three or five lines in. There's a classic bit where they apologize for having to leave out a particular skit that was one of their favorites, but it does have a lot of sex and violence in it, such as the bit where Mr. Fry hits Mr. Laurie with a golf club, which wouldn't be so bad, but he does it very sexily. And so on.

One thing that struck me, watching these old shows, was that Mr. Laurie does seem to give Mr. Fry the business quite a bit about being homosexual. Mr. Fry is, as I now know, homosexual, or perhaps (I don't recall, although I have read an essay by him about it) bisexual with a long-term boyfriend. I don't think Mr. Fry was Out when these were broadcast in the mid-eighties, nor do I know if he was out to Mr. Laurie. Still, when Mr. Laurie's character calls Mr. Fry's character a great nancy or a bumboy, it's hard not to read into it a sort of needling that I think they both might have found very funny. Or not. It's hard to read.

Anyway, of the two, I vastly prefer the earlier, funnier works. I have also seen Mr. Laurie in Blackadder (he is a regular in III and IV), Jeeves and Wooster (with Mr. Fry again), Ben Elton's excruciating snoozefest Maybe Baby, Peter's Friends, and small parts in half-a-dozen movies and television shows. He was certainly good in them, funny in many of them, but not startlingly good of the go-out-and-see-what-else-the-man-has-done sort. He is that sort of good in House, which is good, because it got me to the Bits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus:,

September 17, 2006

Puff Piece: Wonder Wheel

It appears that YHB hasn’t blogged anything nice for a while, and just in case somebody was looking for something other than a gripe, here goes. I’ve listened to the Klezmatics’ Wonder Wheel perhaps ten times in the last couple of weeks, and it is wonderful.

I know some of my Gentle Readers are already familiar with The Klezmatics, and maybe y’all already ran out and bought this album. Or maybe you like the Klezmatics but didn’t know they had a new album, or knew they had one but weren’t sure if it was worth running out and getting. It is.

Some of my Gentle Readers are not (yet) big fans of The Klezmatics or klezmer music, but are fans of Woodie Guthrie. And maybe y’all already ran out and bought this album. Or maybe you like Woodie Guthrie but didn’t know he had a new album, or knew he had one but weren’t sure if it was worth running out and getting. It is.

This is (as GRs may have guessed) another one of those albums where Nora Guthrie lets people into the archive of thousands of Woody Guthrie lyrics to write new music and record the resulting collaboration. I haven’t heard the Billy Bragg/Wilco albums, and I was a little skeptical of the whole process, frankly. But it works. The Klezmatics choose songs from the period Mr. Guthrie was living in Coney Island with his yiddishe in-laws, and some of the lyrics have little yiddishisms, but I think a different band would have heard something very different in the written word. As it turns out, though, the thing is seamless—the album sounds like a Klezmatics album (and, you know, it is a Klezmatics album, and it’s a Woody Guthrie album, too.

Well, mostly. One of the songs, Goin' Away To Sea, was in the archive, and after Matt Darriau had picked out of the thousands and written a rollicking melody for it, and after the band had recorded it and it was finished and through, babe of mine, they were looking through the archive for manuscripts to photograph for the liner notes and came across another copy with a handwritten note on it from Butch Hawes saying “I composed this song you sonofagun.” It’s the folk process.

That song, by the way, is one of a few on this album that on first listen seem to be upbeat, cheerful tunes, but on second listen are kinda scary. This one is pretty straightforward, actually, a song from a soldier to his family, promising to return after he sets this old world free, putting “them fascists in their place/In their long and narrow grave, babe of mine.” On the other hand, his admonitions seem a little scary in themselves:

Don’t you go and leave a light, babe of mine,
Don’t you go and leave a light, babe of mine,
Don’t you go and leave a light
In your window, babe, tonight,
For the enemy to sight, babe of mine.

Don’t go talkin’ out of turn, babe of mine,
Don’t go talkin’ out of turn, babe of mine,
Don’t go talkin’ out of turn,
Don’t let Mister Hitler learn,
‘Cause I never would return, babe of mine.
I don’t think that Mr. Hawes meant the ominous shadow of the police state to be any nearer than Nazi Germany, but I have to think that Mr. Darriau knew that it would sound a little ... well, the context is different, now. Or is it? Should the CD come with a sticker reading This Machine Kills Islamofascists?

Even more startling is Come When I Call You, which starts with one for the pretty little baby, two for the love of me and you, and three for the warships at sea. And Pass Away declares that “Heaven and earth they'll pass away” but “ Not a word of mine/Will ever pass away”. That’s a little troubling, isn’t it?

Some of the songs are more straightforward. Headdy Down is a lullaby, and a heartbreakingly beautiful one. Not heartbreaking because of anything except the gorgeousness of the singing. Seriously, even if you don’t shell out for the whole thing, this song is worth a buck at your friendly local internet download establishment. Gonna Get Through This World is what I think of as Guthrie-esqe, anthemic and inspirational. Mermaid Avenue is a wonderful celebration of “the isle called Coney”. There’s also Holy Ground, a sort of answer to the way This Land is Your Land has been taken over the years, and Heaven, which is mostly startling in the way it reveals the lost optimism of America—it’s a song I can’t imagine even Mr. Guthrie writing these days.

As for the music, if you haven’t already decided to purchase the thing, you can hear some tracks and clips on-line various places, and you can hear an interview at World Café with a partial band doing lovely version of three of the best songs on the album. Yes, there are some duds on the album, but we may disagree about which ones they are. But albums have duds, that’s why the whole album thing died, right? My advice is to buy this one anyway.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

November 27, 2005

Puff Piece: Xing Ped

Your Humble Blogger is back, having had an excellent Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is in some way all about wresting our attention from those things that get up our noses to those things we happen to actually like, yes? So here’s a Puff Piece, since we haven’t had one in a while, about guerilla artist and pedestrian activist Xing Ped. Honestly, I don’t know much about Mr. Xing, who is (or perhaps was) incredibly reclusive. A lot of what I do know is unverifiable anecdote; a lot of people claim to have known or even worked with Mr. Xing, but it seems unlikely to me that he would have confided in them. Anyway, it’s the work that counts. The most likely bio, based as much on conjecture as reliable evidence, is that he was a war orphan of a Chinese soldier and a Korean mother, adopted by a Canadian nurse and brought up somewhere in lower Canada or northern US. The influence of Pop Art and minimalism is obvious, but the stories about his relationship with Donald Judd are probably false. It’s tempting to imagine them on a cross-country car trip, the older man holding forth on materials, on sites, on consumerism, on galleries ... and then the crash outside Marfa and the youngster’s vow never to drive again. Still, there’s no evidence of that, nor of the similar stories about collaborations with Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono or Sol LeWitt. The story of the Marfa crash, particularly, seems to contradict the story about his adoptive family being killed when they were crossing a busy intersection and a car failed to stop. Of course, there’s no evidence for that, either. Or, really, for the youthful flirtation with First Nation religions that led to the early site-specific works.

It was those works—the two-dimensional yellow diamonds, all flat surface, the stenciled words and images, the roadside locations—that really started Mr. Xing’s career. It’s hard to imagine how startling the now-iconic deer or moose would have appeared at the time. Just the silhouette, and the name of the animal (and the stenciled signature) in easy-to-read large sans-serif letters. Later he eschewed the images for short, passionate slogans, making my own favorite pieces. The thing that makes the works powerful is the contrast between the style of the work—cold, industrial, manufactured—and the passion of the pleas to ‘End Road Work’ or ‘End Construction’. And, of course, the siting, by the side of the road, always near some of the ubiquitous construction, the attempt to make the roads wider, longer, faster.

In fact, these later works without Mr. Xing’s name affixed are even more powerful for me, because they play with the whole question of identity. After the seventies ‘happenings’ where he spray-painted the ‘graffiti’ (just his name, in all caps) on the road near some dangerous intersection, his legions of followers have taken to stenciling his name on roads in cities and towns across America (oddly, in Canada they put his family name last as if it were a Western surname). The strong association of his name with dangerous intersections and bus stops carries over to his later, unsigned work, to the point where the signs in proximity to the ever-increasing roadways evoke the danger to pedestrians as well, and even while driving, I find myself raising a fist and shouting his name, as if it had been printed right on the sign.

Of course, after so many years, it’s not clear whether Mr. Xing is still active, or whether he has retired from the active supervision of the team of assistants he had delegated to do the actual siting. He had always taken the minimalist rejection of craft to an extreme, using geometric figures, stencils and print to universalize the artworks. Like the conceptualists, he distanced himself from the actual production of the art. What was clearly his own hand was the placement of the signs and the graffiti, and he attempted to remove himself even from that by allowing assistants to choose the placement of the signs. Added to that, of course, was the work of ‘independent’ copycat artists, and of course many pedestrian-rights activists took his work as part of their cause. By removing his self from the works, he in effect multiplied himself; because it is impossible to tell whether a particular work is a “real” Xing Ped, all of them are and none. There is no artist, there is just art. And yet, when you see any of them—the most amateurish scrawl on a road near a school, or a flimsy canvas orange sign on the roadside—you take it for a Xing Ped, you say his name, you think about the other works (I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous Holzer-like installations where his stylized self-portrait alternates with a warning hand, or where the words WALK and DON’T WALK alternate in red and green like a contradiction incarnate) and, inevitably, you think of the place of walking and driving in our culture.

That’s the magnificent paradox. He removes himself from the work so that he doesn’t stand between the viewer and the (political) meaning, but the result is not that he disappears but that he grows larger, his name encompassing all the byways of the nation. Even if he has already died, and the studio now carries on making the works without any supervision at all, his influence is so strong that they are him, they work for him and he works through them, achieving a sort of immortality. There will always be Xing Ped; the endless construction demands Xing Ped; the children dodging traffic in front of approved Xing Schools grow up to be the drivers he excoriated but also to be the activists he still inspires.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Xing Ped
Xing Ped, Self-Portrait, date unknown.

October 25, 2005

Puff Piece: Baraita

Arthur Hlavaty, who has an actual weblog, linked to The Gashlycrumb Torah, which is as funny as you might expect. However, the blog that contains it, Baraita, turns out to be astoundingly good when just writing, blog-like, about what the bloggist thinks. Talking about sitting with the Seven Shepherds of Israel in the messianic Sukkah made from the carcass of the Leviathan. Talking about the annoyances of Kol Nidre at Congregation Beth Boondoggle. Talking about kashering her kitchen with a blowtorch (“Muahahahahahahaha. I mean, shanah tovah.”). It’s all good.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

September 16, 2005


I hope y’all Gentle Readers are aware that Your Humble Blogger yields to no one in admiration for the Constitution of the United States, a magnificent and profound advance in governmental philosophy and practice, and a blueprint that has proven, over two hundred and seventeen—almost two hundred and eighteen, now—years to be the backbone of an astonishingly long reign of peace, prosperity and stability. Well, and I do actually yield to those people who give it the status of Scripture, who feel that it was not just Divinely Inspired but Revealed. That bit of rhetorical hyberbole aside, I feel that an education in this country at any levels must, to be really good and helpful and proper and whatnot, include an explanation of the Constitution, in proper context for whatever level the student is at.

Let me say that again, before I get into the griping which Gentle Readers know, just know is waiting behind the puff-piece introduction: The Constitution is almost unimaginably marvelous, worthy of study, central to the extraordinary success the United States has had, and an important part of an American education. Furthermore, we should celebrate the Constitution as an American achievement—and it is in many ways a uniquely American achievement. Over the last ten years or so, my admiration for the Constitution has grown immensely, as we have seen the House and the Senate play out their appropriate roles, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial branches tug out their prerogatives, and the dead hand of James Madison keeping everything under control. Can anyone imagine what the rise of the Right in this country would have looked like if we had a system like Italy’s or Israel’s or even Britain’s? Can you imagine what Grover Norquist would have been able to do? Oh, Lord, thank you for James Madison, and thank you for the Constitution. OK? So you know where I’m coming from.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t make me happy at all to discover this morning (thank you, Best Reader) that the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (118 Stat. 2809, 3344-45 (Section 111)) as implemented by the Department of Education (see the Federal Register, 70(99), p. 29727) reads, in Division J: Other Matters, Title 1: Miscellaneous Provisions and Offsets, Section 111, part (b): Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution. The implementation allows that in years where September 17 falls on Saturday or Sunday, the institutions may hold such programs on the week before or after.

In other words, in order to celebrate the U.S. Constitition, our federal legislature demands that local schools alter their schedules.

Now, I am not arguing that such a law is unconstitutional. I happen to agree with decided doctrine which essentially agrees that once an institution that would not ordinarily fall under federal regulation accepts federal dollars it also accepts a certain amount of federal regulation. The question is not whether such a law should be overturned by the courts. My question is whether the law is a good idea.

Er, no.

I think it would be swell if schools celebrated our Constitution, and Constitution Day is as good a time as any to organize such a celebration. Heck, I would be pleased as proverbial if Left Blogovia decided to celebrate the Constitution tomorrow with a Favorite Five Constitutional Provisions meme. You hear? Atrios? Amanda? Matt? Josh? But there’s a difference between thinking something is a good idea and thinking that mandating that thing is a good idea. We can celebrate our Constitution, we can celebrate our Constitution in schools and libraries (is a public library included in “educational institutions” under the meaning of the act? What about a museum? What about a worker training program?), we can arrange a day to all celebrate it together, and that’s great. But what the hell is it doing in the law?

You know, I suspect if legislators spent more time thinking about the Constitution, studying it, you know, getting a sense of the thing and their place in it, we’d have less of this crap. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. A fellow might get frustrated by local schools failing at civic education, and try to mandate it. You can pass laws, but you can’t make civic education happen. And I don’t know who introduced this stupidity, and I don’t care if it was a Democrat or a Republican. Even if it was Senator Byrd (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was, honestly), I hold that whoever it was should be mocked, publicly, for a thousand years. We could make the Public Mocking of the Stupid Legislator part of our Constitution Day festivities. Maybe we should.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

June 29, 2005

Puff Piece: Countdown

Richard Whiteley has died. Now that might not mean much to you, Gentle Readers, but it gives me a chance for a bit of a Puff Piece, such as been sadly lacking round these parts. In addition to being the answer to a terrific trivia question (who was the first person shown on a Channel 4 broadcast), Mr. Whitely personified (to YHB at any rate) one of the facets of English television that I like so much.

Countdown was forty-five minutes (with one commercial interruption, if I remember correctly) of minor manipulation of letters and numbers. There were two games: a letters game and a numbers game. In the letters game, one contestant asks for either a consonant or a vowel, which is flipped off a stack and put onto a board, then ask for another, then another, and so on until nine letters have turned up. Then there’s thirty seconds of music and scribbling, after which the two contestants reveal the longest word they made from those letters, usually seven or eight letters, usually two or three letters longer than the longest word I found. Then we go to the panel, two people, one of whom is actually a lexicographer, who may have come up with a longer word, or may not have, depending. They do this three or four times in a row. Seriously. Just “May I have a consonant, please? A vowel? A consonant? Another consonant. A vowel, please. Another consonant, a vowel, a consonant and a final consonant please.” Then a comment or two, thirty seconds of music, then “What did your come up with, then, Jim?” “A six, Richard.” “Ah, and how about you, Sarah?” “A seven, actually.” “Excellent, well, let’s start with Richard.” And so on. Three or four times in a row.

Then, for a break, they do a numbers game. The contestant picks numbers, again off two stacks. This time, there’s a stack of small numbers and a stack of large ones (25, 50, 75 and 100), the contestant gets six of them. Then there’s a random three digit number revealed, which is the target number. The contestants have thirty seconds (with the theme playing, of course) to combine their six numbers using the four basic functions to get as close as they can to the target number. So, for instance, if the numbers are 3, 6, 4, 2, 25 and 50 and the target number is 742, you could do, um, [(6+4)(25+50)] - 4 - 3 for 743, right? I never ever ever ever get these. In thirty seconds, I usually can’t get within thirty, much less within five. The contestants always are within five, and often hit the button. Anyway, they see who gets closest, and then (I’d forgotten about this) the girl who flips over the letter part comes up with a better way, and then back to the letters game.

They do the letters game eleven times, and the numbers game three times, and there’s a tiebreaker nine-letter anagram that goes to the first one to get it. That’s it. It’s a simple, difficult game, and they get contestants that are very good at it. And they play it over and over again.

And this is the clever bit—they don’t fuck it up. They just bring on the contestants, play the game, bring on more contestants, play the game again, come back tomorrow and we’ll play it again. They didn’t make it easier, or harder, they didn’t add a third game, they didn’t make it more visual, or double the money. Actually, I can’t remember them talking about prize money at all. I suppose there must be prize money involved, but I have no idea if it’s in the thousands or if it’s twenty quid and coach fare. All they do is play the game.

And, you know, if you don’t like it, there are three other channels.

As for YHB, well, if it were on tv here, I suspect I would not only arrange my afternoon so I could watch it (or else invest in some of that new-fangled automated recording technology) but stop everything else and sit with a pad of paper scribbling and humming the music.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

June 7, 2005

World Famous, in Poland

I’ve had a soft spot for the late Anne Bancroft ever since I happened to see An Audience with Mel Brooks on cable in 1983. He was pushing his new film, To Be or Not To Be, which as it happens may have been the last of his movies to be really good, but anyway he did an hour of stand-up, taking questions from the audience full of famous actors. And plants. In fact, the whole audience may have been planted. The questions were obviously plants. At one point, a woman wearing dark glasses and a scarf asks “Is it true you are married to the most beautiful woman in the world?” “Certainly not,” says Mr. Brooks, “I’m married to Anne Bancroft.” The woman was, of course, Ms. Bancroft, who then came forward and did a bit of shtick of some kind with her husband, I forget what. Anyway, I thought it was great, particularly for a woman of a certain age, once glamorous, to participate in that sort of joke about herself. Of course, I was pretty young at the time. On the other hand, I still think it’s a good bit.

Anyway, despite my affection for her, I’ve never really been knocked out by her films, with the sole exception of 84 Charing Cross Road, a real three-hankie job. Yes, yes, the Graduate. I wasn’t knocked out. Yes, yes, the Miracle Worker. I wasn’t knocked out. I kinda liked her in Torch Song Trilogy, although by 1988 I considered myself hip enough to disdain the movie version. I was vaguely interested in seeing her play an updated Miss Haversham, although as I pointed out at the time, you knew she could do it, and you knew Robert DeNiro could do Magwitch, and it would be far more interesting to see them switch parts.

Well, there it is. I can’t help thinking that she was about to do one more brilliant role, that there was one more fantastic part left for her, and she never got around to it. Still, I suppose there’s hardly any good actor you can’t say that about, and those that you know didn’t have one more role left in them, well, that’s even more depressing, isn’t it?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

April 3, 2005

We Do Not Stock Oxymorons

It seems as if Your Humble Blogger has yet to write a Puff Piece on A.Word.a.Day, Anu Garg’s tremendously entertaining service where he emails you, well, a word a day. Unlike some other seemingly similar services I’ve tried, Mr. Garg often chooses words that even my Gentle Readers will be unfamiliar with, and which are interesting in themselves. I have learned, on a few occasions, that I have been using a word incorrectly, and on many more, I have found that there is a word for something that I had always thought no single word described. For instance, where I have always used avuncular to refer to the particular affection an uncle shows his nieces and nephews, I had never heard materteral, which means much the same only referring to an aunt. I can now say that, for instance, a certain ex-boss looked out for the people in her employ with a materteral eye, not quite maternal, and certainly not grandmotherly. True, I’d have to explain what it means, but only once or twice, right?

As I say, it’s too bad I haven’t written a Puff Piece, because I’m all cranky about one of the daily notes, and as it’s so much easier to write hatchet jobs than puff pieces, here we are. Or perhaps it much easier to refrain from writing the puff pieces. Anyway.

This week’s began very nicely with three “words about wordplay”: antanaclasis, paralipsis, and antiphrasis. All of these are great and useful words, and describe quite specifically certain rhetorical figures that come up far more frequently than the words that describe them. So far, so good. Then came Thursday, and Thursday’s word was oxymoron.

Oxymoron has been a pet peeve of mine as far back as I can recall. Mr. Garg’s definition is typical: A figure of speech in which two contradictory terms appear together for emphasis, for example, “deafening silence”. For comparison, the American Heritage fourth edition’s is quite similar: A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist. I’ll go ahead and quote from ooo is for oxymoron, from Jed’s late lamented column:

An oxymoron is what columnist Herb Caen used to call a "self-cancelling phrase"—a phrase which is internally contradictory. An oxymoron usually consists of two words which appear to be opposite in meaning. Often the apparent contradiction is simply due to the words in the phrase having other meanings than the intended ones. For instance, the phrase "even odds" makes perfect sense in its intended meaning, but it's often cited as an oxymoron because other meanings of "even" and "odd" are opposites of each other.

What Jed gets at here that the other two definitions miss is that the words in the phrase appear to contradict each other, but do not. The appearance of contradiction is the rhetorical trick. An oxymoron is not a phrase that actually does contradict itself, but one that appears to. So “deafening silence” is an oxymoron, because we ordinarily think of deafening as being more or less a synonym for loud, and in that sense it would contradict silence. In this case of course, either (more rarely) we are talking literally, as the total absence of sound (or silence) has the effect of somehow deafening someone (through atrophy?), or (more likely) we are using deafening to mean something like having the same social effect as a really loud noise, such as a person screaming abuse. As the common use of metaphor is to compare a thing to a thing that it is unlike, these phrases are very common. Jumbo shrimp is commonly called an oxymoron; Jumbo, was, of course, P.T. Barnum’s prize elephant and thus things that are elephantine, er, large are often called jumbo, whereas shrimp are quite small, and thus things that are small are often called shrimpy or shrimps. But shrimp is not used here to (metaphorically) mean small, just to mean (literally) shrimp. But jumbo prawn is not considered an oxymoron, nor does jumbo eggs, and eggs aren’t much larger than shrimp, because one metaphor is common and another isn’t.

Probably about two-thirds of the phrases that show up on lists such as Jed’s or the one from are derived this way. In dry wine, dry is a less-commonly-used meaning, derived from metaphor. In Plastic glasses, glass is a commonly-used Schenectady, but the point is the same. In taped live or recorded live, live means neither live nor the metaphorical live nor yet the extended metaphor live, but the common descriptor derived from that metaphor, live, which makes it no contradiction at all. But those aren’t very interesting, other than to notice how words have a variety of different uses, and they aren’t responsible for them all at once. Anyway, it’s OK to call those oxymorons, technically, although most of them really they are sub-oxymorons, accidental juxtapositions due to the migration of words, having little rhetorical effect.

I would reserve the word, ideally, for the deliberate use of apparently contradictory words to either emphasize (deafening silence) or make a joke, or just draw attention to the words themselves. If I describe a particular celebrity as scandalously nice, or a novel as sublimely bad, I am using the rhetorical trick of an oxymoron, and I may be using it effectively, too. If a name a song Freezing Fire, I’m using an attention-getting rhetorical trick, and perhaps effectively, too. And if Milton (in Paradise Lost) says

Yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe
it’s pretty damned effective. And the point, you know, of these things having names is that they are, potentially, effective tricks, and knowing about them, being able to differentiate one from another and spot them in the wild can help you either become an effective speaker/writer, or build up immunity to effective writers and speakers.

Now, there’s a third category of things often called oxymorons. These are joke oxymorons, phrases which contain no inherent contradiction, either actual or metaphoric, but which are called oxymorons as a joke. As Jed wrote, “to say that "California culture" is an oxymoron is to say that there is no culture in California, or that all Californians are uncultured.” In other words, the phrase California culture can only be called an oxymoron in jest or in insult. Similarly, it’s a fairly good, if tired, joke to claim that military intelligence is an oxymoron. It isn’t. If it was, the joke wouldn’t be funny. No, it isn’t funny anyway, but there it is. It could be funny. It’s theoretically funny. Similarly, if you call the phrase Christian Science an oxymoron, you are making a weak joke, or weakly insulting Christians, or scientists, or members of TCCS or something. What you are not doing is actually claiming that Christian Science is an oxymoron. And that’s fine. Until someone tries to tell you what an oxymoron is by using a joke oxymoron.

The AWAD definition was fine (if incomplete), but here’s the example, from an article called “The Family That Cheats Together”, by Karen D'Souza in the Mar 25, 2005 San Jose Mercury News: “A man for whom the term 'business ethics' is not just a polite oxymoron...” I understand that Ms. D’Souza was, herself, making a joke, and although I would have been gritting my teeth whilst reading it, I would have eventually let it go. I would not, not ever, have used it as an example. American Rhetoric, an otherwise terrific resource chooses as its example a line from a movie: “Safe sex -- now there's an oxymoron. That's like 'tactical Nuke' or 'adult male'.” Hahaha. Yes, I actually think it’s funny (funny-once) to call adult male an oxymoron. See, it’s a joke. It’s not an example. It’s not an example, people! It’s just not! It may be funny to say that if you look up choke in the dictionary you’ll see the 2004 Yankees team picture. It would not be funny for the dictionary to place that picture there. Well, it would be funny, but it wouldn’t be responsible.

Most of the time I see an example of oxymoron, it’s one of those joke ones. On occasion, it’s one of the accidental ones, such as jumbo shrimp or home office. Is it asking too much to use the Milton? Then how about Tennyson’s “His honor rooted in dishonor stood / And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true” (from Lancelot and Elaine)? John Donne’s “O miserable abundance / O beggarly riches”? Edmund Spenser’s “painful pleasure turns to pleasing pain”? Or Shakespeare’s “fearful bravery” (“thinking by this face / To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage”)? John F. Kennedy’s “peaceful revolution of hope”?

Well, and now that I’ve ranted for a ludicrous amount of time, I see that Wikipedia’s entry actually is rather good. So that’s all right. And even Richard Lederer after his usual blather eventually admits that it is a legitimate literary technique, although as usual he prefers mockery to explication. But I’m not just whistling in the wind, here.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

December 16, 2004

Puff Piece: Operation Homecoming

Well, and when I started this blog thing I told myself that I mustn’t let it degenerate into a constant litany of complaints against the various annoyances of life. As a rule, I said, for every hatchet job I write, I need to write a puff piece. Over the months, this has meant that I don’t write very many hatchet jobs (or at least not as many as I start to). On the other hand, I don’t write very many puff pieces, either. So having given in to the weakness to complain about a New York Times piece, I’ll plant a big kiss on the web site of Operation Homecoming. Operation Homecoming is a NEA/DoD program that runs writing workshops for returning soldiers as part of the debriefing. The program was recently expanded to increase the number of workshops and locations; I’ve seen a variety of numbers but it looks like the total cost is less than a million dollars and most of that is picked up by corporate sponsors.

Now, I don’t want to get too romantic about returning soldiers, and if you are interested, you should probably read opposing articles such as Aleksandar Hemon’s Operation Homeland Therapy in Slate as well as admiring articles such as Dennis Ryan’s note. I happen to have a soft spot for the World War One “war poets”, and I think that it’s breathtaking to suggest that Americans want to invest even a trifle of money in the possibility of a few gems in uniform.

Digression: If you happened to read a new specfic novel set in some world that had as part of the background the fact that the military, for whatever reason, recruited its officers from the universities’ top-ranked historians, poets and mathematicians, and that a really first-class translator of dead languages was pretty much guaranteed a commission, would you dismiss it as implausible or what? And then for the poetry coming out of the war experience to be a separate and highly valued subgenre? End Digression.

I also happen to like the Library of Congress’s Veteran’s History Project. I understand those people who find this all to be a glorification of the military life, but mostly I find it to have a refreshing sense of respect for the individuals who wear the uniforms, as well as for writing itself. I don’t care if anybody ever reads the anthologies, nor do I expect ever to read them myself, or if I do to like anything in them. I just think it’s a great idea.

Thank you,

May 14, 2004

Puff Piece: Between the Lions

Your Humble Blogger should remember to do puff pieces with much greater frequency; I’m not really as cranky as I seem on-line. And, as it happens, my Perfect Non-Reader is learning to read Between the Lions.

Now, just the title works really well for me. The lions in question are not, however, Patience and Fortitude, but Cleo and Theo, and their cubs Lionel and Leona. They do inhabit the Barnaby B. Busterfield III Public Library, and they host a show about learning to read. Well, cute little announcer bunny is the emcee, but that isn’t important.

Anyway, if you have fond memories of Sesame Street, the show is far more like Sesame Street than Sesame Street is these days. It also has something of the old Electric Company about it, and it also has a touch of the Reading Rainbow. Lots of little segments wrapped around a goofy storyline involving reading a book. In addition, each episode focuses on a particular vowel sound, and words that contain it. Those words and sounds show up in the main segment, and also in the segments with Martha Reader and the Vowelles, the Adventures of Cliff Hanger, Chicken Jane, Gawain’s Word, the incredibly catchy song with all the names, and, of course, the trouser-defying magic of the Great Smartini.

The whole thing is extremely silly, and seems to have a words-can-be-fun attitude, which is my attitude as well, of course. They have a liberal helping of Stuff for Parents (frankly, I hope my Perfect Non-Reader never does come to understand why I laughed when the Baha Men took the dog books out of the library) and general silliness. The adventures of Sam Spud, Par-Boiled Detective always end with a distressed viewer. “Mom! The talking potato with no mouth is back, and his incessant wordplay is making me queasy.” “It’s educational television, dear,” says the mother, absently, from the next room. “I’m sure it’ll help you in school. Somehow.”

The web site is also tremendous. In addition to having about a billion songs and clips and things to print and so on, they have half-a-dozen recommended books to go along with each of the seventy episodes. Not bad.


August 6, 2003

Bishop Barbara Harris

Well, and Your Humble Blogger is not doing a good job at balancing hatchet jobs with puff pieces, but here's one of the latter.

Bishop Barbara Harris is one of the most heroic people currently involved in public life. She was the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church—heck, she was the first woman bishop in any church that has bishops. She has worked for years and years on a variety of issues in the church and society. She is an inspiring speaker, and an inspiring person. When my Best Reader was confirmed into the Episcopal Church, it was Bishop Barbara who laid her hand on her; it was an incredibly moving moment for my Best Reader, and for Your Humble Blogger as well (as many Gentle Readers are aware, I am not a Christian myself; I hope none of you think that disqualifies me from considering a Bishop heroic).

She has aged a lot in recent years, as people do, but she is still working. She appears to have acted as a mentor to the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as he sought election as next diocesan bishop of New Hampshire. As anybody reading this is probably aware, Rev. Robinson was elected yesterday by the House of Bishops; the final step in becoming the first openly gay bishop in, you know, any church that has bishops. At the discussion preceding the final vote, she spoke, and I transcribed this from the video the Church has made available:

I remember well the dire predictions made at the time of my own election consent process and consecration. There were threats of schism, impaired communion, and further erosion of our relationship with Rome. And while there as been some impaired communion around women in the episcopate and other issues, the communion, such as it is, a loose federation of autonomous provinces, has held, thirteen, foureen women bishops later.
The process she refers to took place in 1989. As recently as that, it seemed like the consecration of a female bishop would change the world. And, of course, it did, but not in the way people feared. And Bishop Gene Robinson will, I hope, change the world as well; we will all hope that he does as well as Barbara Harris.

Redintegro Iraq,

April 8, 2003

Puff Puff

Are y'all reading Tomato Nation? Why the heck not? Do you want to piss her off? For crying out loud, people.

March 5, 2003

Puff Piece: PMQ

Your Humble Blogger has been terribly cranky over the last week or so. On principle, I try to write a puff piece for every hatchet job, but I expect it will run more like two to one on the bad side. Still, there are things I like, and enjoy, and I'll try to remember to write about them. Here's one.

Any US-citizen with access to C-SPAN and an interest in politics and the political process would be well-served to watch the Prime Minister's Questions, run every Sunday while the Parliament sits, at 9:00pm eastern time. The actual event is Wednesday at something like 7am Eastern; you can see it live on Parliament Live TV, if your connection is good enough. The transcripts are in Hansard as well, but I don't advise them as a substitute (though I do use them if I miss the video, as the House doesn't appear to have video archives available).

What's so good about them? Mostly, they are a magnificent example of the benefits of a parliamentary system. The main difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential one (such as we have in the US) is that the executive is a legislator, and responsible to the legislature. That means that debate is held, regularly, between the executive and the legislature; in the US it simply is not. In the UK system, with its love of talk, that means that the Prime Minister must take questions in the House, every week, for half an hour.

Now, not much is actually done in that time. I doubt any opinions change, no compromises get hammered out, and any subject that gets brought up is touched on in the shallowest manner possible. There's a lot of party squabbling, a good deal of point-scoring, some grandstanding, some petty beefing, and above all, muttering, nodding, coughing, and foot-shuffling. It's not the finest hour for the Mother of Parliaments, but scarcely the worst; it seems to mostly be a diversion, almost an entertainment.

And it is entertaining. Blair is masterful, moving from comic to stern, to thoughtful, to snide. Ian Duncan Smith is terrible, which pleases me as a Blair fan, but also provides a marked contrast. Charles Kennedy, of the Lib Dems, has a posture and manner that speaks volumes about third-party idealism and defeatism. The Conservatives are delightfully Tory, with stereotypical suits, haircuts, and faces. The Labour MPs are marvelously themselves as well, big fellows in ill-fitting suits and bad haircuts, huge bellies thrust indignantly before them as they make their obvious points. The member from Sherwood talks about the need for lots of police in Nottinghamshire. If you watch, pay attention to the people who aren't speaking, as well, to those whispering gleefully to each other, nodding seriously, shouting, or squatting on the aisle steps.

The House of Commons was burnt out in the Battle of Britain, as I understand it (you don't hear as much about the Fire Watch there, but it was, like the one at St. Paul's, brave, disciplined, harrowing, and boring); in rebuilding, they decided not to have a room like the US has, with desks for everyone or even chairs for everyone. The members sit on benches, and if by some chance everyone shows up for a debate (the House is usually mostly empty, as is our own), they squeeze, stand, and squat.

Anyway, the real eye-opener is the conflict. When, do you suppose, was the last time someone told George W. Bush to his face that the politically oriented spin machine he set up is responsible for the lack of trust in him personally and in his plans for war? Sure, people say it, and write it, and if the president cares to find out, he certainly knows that people disagree with him, and strongly, too. That's different, though, from being in the room with somebody saying it. The US President speaks to Congress once a year, and maybe twice, but never sits and listens when they respond. Barring a challenge from within the party, an incumbent only does one string of maybe three or four debates, over a month's time, four years into his presidency.

I don't think a parliamentary system would work in the US without major changes in whole federal system, which I don't endorse at present. I know the British system has troubles of its own. I am aware that Blair is particularly good at this, and that John Major was not; I never saw Thatcher at it but I suspect she was tremendous. I know that it didn't teach humility to any of those. I know that nobody watches it in England.

I do find it breathtaking. Imagine, imagine, if W. had to sit through half an hour of this a week. Imagine Clinton, every week. My goodness.

Thank you,