Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Welcome to January, land of enchantment, and by “enchantment,” I mean, of course, frozen mud.
So, did everyone have a nice Getstuffmas? Santa brought us a broken furnace. It didn’t actually break all at once, but started to die a few days earlier, just not coming on until it was way colder in here than the setting on the thermostat. Then it wouldn’t stay on quite long enough to get back up to “warm.” It took us a while to catch on that our own furnace was gaslighting us. Lather, rinse, repeat, and pretty soon it was 12/25 and freaking freezing in here. I hate holidays. Oddly enough, the guy who came to repair it was insanely good at his job and had it humming away in about 20 minutes. At $10 and change per minute. Oh well.
It dawned on me a few days ago that this year, 2015, marks the twentieth anniversary of this website, a fact that I find simultaneously impressive and deeply disorienting. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-year old websites still around, and the web was a very different place in 1995; I actually had to go buy a couple of books on Unix and HTML to figure out how to get the site up and running. I wrote the first version of the site in Notepad.
A few months later I wrote one of the first general purpose mass-audience internet books, called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet (Random House), which was excerpted in the Washington Post and was a huge success, except it made me next to no money for some reason. Probably because my idiot publisher refused to believe it was selling as fast as it was and never printed enough copies, so it was constantly out of stock in bookstores. A couple of years later (1998), I revised the whole book from scratch for next to no money because I was naive and had a lousy agent. It’s still available on Amazon, but please don’t buy it, because it’s about twenty years out of date.
That book did fulfill one of every author’s primo fantasies for me: I got to hang out in a busy bookstore a few days before Christmas (Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side of NYC, in this case) and see dozens of people snatch up and buy multiple copies of my book. It was very cool, but also actually kinda creepy. Hard to explain.
Speaking of books about the internet, I recently read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which is very good. It’s much more than just another screed bemoaning the deleterious effects of the net; in many respects it’s not about the net at all, but the modern drive to seek solutions to things which may not, in fact, actually be problems at all. It’s a fascinating and very well-written book. Here is a somewhat long but very interesting interview with Morozov.
Elsewhere in the news, we sat down and watched Life Itself, the bio-pic about Roger Ebert, which I anticipated liking, because I liked Roger Ebert (although he liked a lot of absolute junk). Anyway, the more time passes after seeing the film, the more it strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory, a weirdly lumpy and half-baked effort in desperate need of a competent editor.
On the other hand, I was fully prepared to dislike Finding Vivian Maier because the thought of someone unearthing an artist’s work after the artist’s death and apparently profiting from it is inherently repulsive. But the film is absolutely fascinating, very well done, and shows a real commitment on the part of John Maloof, who bought several boxes of her negatives at an auction a few years ago, to both popularize her work and investigate her life story. I’ve always been a fan of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, etc., and Vivian Maier‘s work is at least at their level. She was a genuine genius with an extraordinary eye. She was also a deeply strange and troubled person, a paranoid hoarder with a definite “dark side.” Anyway, it’s a great film. Unfortunately Vivian Maier’s work may soon be withdrawn from public view due to a legal wrangle, which would be very sad.
I just noticed that Netflix is now pushing The Interview at me. I’m gonna pass and stick to P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to life here at Churchmouse Abbey, for we are as skint as our namesake.
And now, on with the show…
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Yay, December! OK, I’m outta here.
Just kidding. Hey, it’s the holiday season, right? Speaking of which, I was reminded, when they lit the tree at Rockefeller Center recently, of the day when I took a shortcut through there on my way to work one morning years ago. Crews were rigging electrical cables, etc., in preparation for the ceremony that evening, and as I walked down a side street off the main concourse (in front of the old AP building, if that rings a bell), I saw something remarkable. It was a real live reindeer, apparently awaiting its turn on some camera, tethered to a concrete block in the middle of the street. There was no one around, so I walked over, talked to it and petted it for a few minutes. Its antlers and its hooves were covered with soft, fuzzy fur. Who knew? It was perfectly friendly and seemed to appreciate the attention. It was awesome. It was like running into the real Santa Claus hanging out on the corner. I briefly considering absconding with the critter, but I was running late and so went on to my office. Twenty years later, that remains one of my most vivid memories of Christmas in New York. Reindeer are cool.
Elsewhere in holiday cheer, for some reason (probably because House Hunters seems to be on hiatus) we ended up watching The Polar Express on the Disney Channel the other night. I didn’t even know we got the Disney Channel, but we do, and boy howdy, what a weird, grim little movie this is. If that’s a holiday classic, count me out.
I was vaguely familiar with the children’s book on which it is based from seeing it in bookstores (you remember bookstores, right?), and I’m willing to accept that the book itself is charming. I also have a long-standing love of trains. But the book is all of 32 pages long and heavily illustrated. This movie is a 100-minute computer-generated bummer, the most relentlessly depressing kids’ movie I’ve ever seen.
The big problem is the “motion capture” computer animation technique used to transform live-action figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, who “plays” most of the roles) into affectless droids in a sort of ultra-realistic cartoon virtual reality. The result would probably work well in a zombie movie (Zombie Santa and the Elves from Hell, perhaps, or Rudolf the Undead Reindeer Goes to Uncanny Valley), but here the result is just plain creepy. It’s like watching an extended version of one of those cutesy and cloying animated pharmaceutical commercials. (It’s too bad; done with high-quality real animation (not CGI), this could have been a beautiful movie. The pure-animation parts, e.g., the wolves in the woods, are very evocative.)
Unfortunately, the color palette is muted and depressing, and padding the brief story out to movie length is done with painfully drawn-out and pointless scenes (e.g., the ten minutes of the flying ticket). The North Pole turns out to look like a cross between a Supermax prison and an Amazon warehouse, and the sweeping panoramas of grim and lifeless North Pole streets are notable for their vacant desolation. Not a creature is stirring in Santagrad.
Roger Ebert loved the movie, but some other reviewers strongly differed, and Manohla Dargis at the NYT, bless her soul, nailed it, noting that “Santa’s big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes … one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.'” Did I mention that the elves — and Santa! — are also weirdly nasty?
The whole thing makes Olive Kitteridge look like Mary Poppins. Yeah, we watched that too. I’m trying hard to forget both these bundles of holiday joy, but so far it’s clearly not working.
Onward. CatCat abides, and is getting better at this “cat” thing. She still has problems lip-syncing her meows, which is a bit unsettling. She opens her mouth and there’s a half-second of no noise, then a weirdly loud mechanical maowrr that kinda sounds feline. Oh well, baby steps, baby steps. My current theory is that she’s from the North Pole.
So here we are at year’s end, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters wish you a happy and healthy New Year. To that end (and because we are at whatever the stage beyond flat broke is), I’d like to remind y’all that subscriptions to TWD make excellent holiday gifts (just note the recipient’s email address in the PayPal form or in a separate email to firstname.lastname@example.org).
And now, on with the show….
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Alrighty, then. At the risk of turning this site into Weird Cat Blog, I have two new CatCat phenomena to report. I hope such details will eventually enable investigators to piece together exactly what this critter is and how (and why) she arrived on our planet.
Number One: CatCat is not afraid of vacuum cleaners. At all. All of our cats are at least a little afraid of vacuums, and even the most placid among them will walk in a dignified manner to the nearest exit when one starts. Most of them run for their lives, even though they’ve never had an actual scary experience with one. But you can run a vacuum cleaner right up to CatCat’s front paws and she won’t blink. That ain’t normal.
Artist's conception of space cat
Number Two: liquids. CatCat drinks lots of water from her bowl, and will sit sedately on the edge of the sink while you run the tap. She appears to be familiar with liquids. But last week I took her a plate of canned cat food with a little can-juice (whatever) on the plate. It was one of her favorite flavors. When I set the plate down in front of her on the floor (which slants slightly, as does the whole house), the liquid flowed around the edge of the plate, seeking the low point.
This is Life on Earth, Chapter 1, right?
CatCat was terrified. Completely flipped out. She stared at the liquid as if it were alive, crouched in alarm and backed away, stared some more, tracking the slowly-moving fluid in wide-eyed horror, and then ran out of the room.
Um, wow. This is not a kitten. The vet estimated that she’s at least four or five years old. And she’s never seen this before? Riiight.
Tell me more, Earthling.
And then there’s the fact that she likes to look at herself in the mirror (unusual in a grown cat), but she does it very intensely, like she’s checking her costume. She’s also a very deep sleeper, and you can tell when she’s running in her dream because her legs move. Maybe she’s just a very small, very strange dog. From Mars.
Onward. Until a month or so ago, Netflix Streaming offered the first nine years of Law & Order, Original Recipe, Lennie Briscoe Edition, which I think is absolutely the best cop show ever produced (apart from The Wire, which was a very different kind of show). Unfortunately, Netflix pulled it from their lineup before I made it to the end, but several basic cable channels are carrying reruns of the entire series, so there’s that. The fun of seeing Briscoe and Logan/Curtis/Green for me (apart from the plots “ripped from the headlines” and Jerry Orbach’s quips) is seeing Manhattan in the 1990s, when we lived there (having migrated from Brooklyn). In episodes centered on the Upper West Side (which is to say many of them), I got to revisit our old neighborhood and even caught a glimpse of the guys from Zingone’s, our favorite deli (@ 82nd & Columbus Avenue), standing on the sidewalk in the background of one long scene.
Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe is a classic performance, of course, but judging from a few retired NYPD detectives I knew, still in the ballpark of realism, including the sardonic humor. I actually have a “Certificate of Appreciation” around here somewhere from the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association (essentially the detectives’ union), but I can’t for the life of me remember what I did to deserve it. I probably wrote something for their magazine.
The notable difference between L&O in the 90s and cop shows now is the prevalence of sadistic violence and gore in current shows. I’ve never been able to take any of the L&O spinoffs and copycats (SVU, CSU, NCIS, et al.) for that reason, and even L&O itself veered sharply in that direction after 1999: more lingering shots of slashed throats, mutilated models, etc., ad nauseam, not to mention the rise of the ludicrous mannequin-cop (both male and female). The whole supercop/serial killer/autopsy shtick, as Lennie might say. I gotta say that I don’t understand the popular mania for serial killers in movies and TV, and I really don’t understand how anyone can voluntarily watch this insanely repetitive and moronic — and usually intensely misogynistic — drivel week after week. I sat through a full episode of SVU while trapped in a waiting room last year and it made me want to leave the country.
What else. Oh yeah, I have chronic optic neuritis, pretty much standard issue with MS, which produces blurred vision, transitory blind spots, pain in the eyes and flashes of light. Even on a good day it’s like watching an old TV with lousy reception, and I often see little white lights running up the edge of my field of vision, as if a film had jumped its sprockets in a projector. Very weird. Last week we were sitting on the couch, watching House Hunters on HGTV, and I noticed that there were suddenly strings of tiny colored lights running across my field of vision. Quite festive, actually. I guess my visual cortex was in the holiday mood. Anyway, there have been quite a few days lately when I couldn’t read much of anything, so there may be more than the usual delay in processing subscriptions, etc.
As always, your subscriptions and contributions keep this rickety boat afloat.
And now, on with the show…