Friday, June 30, 2017

Tempest in a (Sewage-Filled) Teapot

We are currently in a lather about a tweet from President Trump. No, another one.

Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski had tweeted something earlier this week about the President, who responded with a tweet mocking her and co-host/fiance Joe Scarborough. He suggested they had been begging him for a visit to his Mar-a-Largo resort but he had refused them, saying that Brzezinski was bleeding after plastic surgery.

Scarborough and Brzezinski wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this morning, refuting the president's claims and supplying evidence for their version of events. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the tweet hurt attempts to create a more civil tone in Congress and said he did not see it as an "appropriate comment." Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee called on Trump to resign. A little-known blogger with the picture of an angry wet cat as his header thought everyone should shut up already.

And I really do, because I don't care in the slightest about this entire episode.

I don't mean that I think the president's tweet is acceptable -- it's not. It's beneath the dignity of the office and demonstrates that Donald Trump is unfit for that office. But we knew that already. We knew that every time he made noise in earlier election cycles about running, we knew that when he became a candidate, we knew that when he won primaries, we knew that when he won the nomination and we knew that when he won the election. I'm not going to bother to look up what percentage of the people who voted for him did so because they genuinely saw him as the lesser of two evils -- or perhaps saw Hillary Clinton as the more evil of two lessers -- but I'm betting it's high. I personally believe Trump somehow thinks he's being funny when he does this crap, but his grade-Z Rickles reject insults -- Mika had a facelift 'cause middle-aged chicks worry about their looks and she's 50, yuk-yuk -- don't even have that going for them. Anyone who needed this particular tweet to understand that Donald Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States has not paid attention. Ever.

Nor do I think that Scarborough and Brzezinski -- who always make me think I've woken up in one of those Friends alternative timelines, where Chandler and Phoebe were the two who got together and became TV pundits -- are some sort of martyrs. They gave the Trump candidacy plenty of oxygen early on, making it harder and harder for legitimate candidates to actually offer reasons why we should support them. You built ze monster, Joe und Mika, so you deal mit him! Scarborough had an unremarkable three terms representing Florida's 1st Congressional District and Brzezinksi worked in television news, and there's nothing about either of them that merits the president's harsh and inappropriate tweets. But his harsh and inappropriate tweets don't suddenly elevate them, either.

I want Paul Ryan to pipe down because he needs to be too busy running the House of Representatives to bother with the media firestorm over irrelevant crap like this. The White House is not going to be a major supplier of adults in the room, Rep. Ryan, so you need to step up. I want Sheila Jackson Lee -- who has said we've landed on Mars, the United States is 400 years old, hurricane names are too white and has some of the highest staff turnover in Washington -- to pipe down because I dislike remembering that 150,000 people will vote for her.

Most of all, I don't care about the president's nasty tweets because I'm more concerned about his incoherent foreign policy, his foolishly protectionist trade policy, his shaky grasp of basic economics, his inconsistency on issues like immigration and health care policies and a host of others. Despite a few bright spots like James Mattis, Neil Gorsuch, Nikki Haley and probably Jerome Adams, President Trump is already building his Democratic opponents a solid case in the 2018 elections. Compared to these things, the tweets mean less than the product that comes out of the other end of the bird.

I'm a lot more concerned with how lousy a president he's making than how lousy a human being he is.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Movie fans sometimes label the years from 1989 to 1999 as a "Disney Renaissance." Sparked by the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House hit the screens with 10 movies during that time period, several of which rank among their best-known products and rival those created during the studio heyday of Walt Disney's lifetime.

One feature of most of these renaissance-era releases is the use of well-known actors as the voice cast, with the standout example being Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline were probably the best-known names in the 1996 release The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with title character Tom Hulce rounding out the marquee names. But Notre Dame is sometimes the forgotten cast member of the renaissance show, eclipsed by Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

It's not hard to see why; it's pretty easily the most "adult" of the list, with references to ideas like infanticide, lust, attempted mass murder and damnation. Esmeralda, the character voiced by Moore, seems to have spent more time studying with Jessica Rabbit than Snow White, and Kevin Kline's Captain Phoebus acts quite aware of the difference. "Look at that disgusting display," huffs his superior, Judge Claude Frollo, when seeing the Gypsy Esmeralda dance. "Yes sir!" Phoebus replies, raising his helmet visor for a better view.

The story is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although there are some new characters added and the ultimate fate of several others is changed. Probably for the best, or else Disney might have been sued by the parents of some severely traumatized children. Killing Bambi's mom is nothing compared to what goes on in Hugo's book.

Quasimodo (Hulce), is orphaned when Frollo (Tony Jay), pursuing his Gypsy mother to arrest her, causes her death. Frollo is about to kill the baby when the Notre Dame cathedral archdeacon confronts him, forcing him to let the malformed baby live. Frollo agrees, on the condition that the boy live at the cathedral and never go into the outside world. He grows to become the bell-ringer, befriended by three stone gargoyles who help make his life enjoyable -- and who provide proper Disney comic relief. Many years later, Frollo seeks military reinforcements to either eliminate the Gypsies or drive them from Paris. His new officer, Phoebus, is uneasy with this work from the start and, growing deeply fond of Esmeralda, decides to work against Frollo. Quasimodo winds up working with him when his own crush on Esmeralda endangers her and draws Frollo's wrath.

As mentioned above, Notre Dame is probably one of the most adult-level animated movies Disney produced during its history, and certainly during the renaissance decade. Mulan had massive battles and Pocahontas the threatened execution of John Smith, but neither had Notre Dame's undercurrents of Frollo's genocidal hatred of the Gypsies and his lust for Esmeralda. But that greater maturity may make give it a more lasting impact than some of the other renaissance-era movies and certainly helps elevate its quality.

It's by no means perfect -- during production Moore took her best shot but eventually told producers her husky voice was not equal to the task of her single song, "God Bless the Outcasts." Singer Heidi Mollenhauer doubled her and has a great voice, but her performance is really too smooth to match the tone of Moore's spoken lines.

Even at only 91 minutes, the movie drags, probably having one song too many. My vote for eviction goes to "A Guy Like You." The comic-relief gargoyles don't fit as well into the storyline as the Beast's enchanted housewares, and this number featuring them really emphasizes how their presence and antics don't match the tone of the rest of the movie.

And (spoiler alert!) Disney wimps out in the end by having the beautiful Esmeralda fall in love with the handsome Phoebus instead of Quasimodo. The studio often touts its support of diversity. But when given the opportunity to actually be brave enough to have a movie about how un-beautiful surfaces may cover kind and beautiful souls follow through on its premise, creators chicken out. Yes, Quasimodo's unrequited love is handled gently and with dignity. But the move is inconsistent with everything we've been told for the previous 50 minutes and robs Esmeralda of some of the depth and quality of her character.

Even with those flaws, though, Notre Dame is rightfully a part of Disney's decade-long string of hits that marked the end of the hand-drawn animation era for American studios and the beginning of digital and CGI work. And the time spent with Quasi, Esmeralda and Phoebus is not wasted, either on an entertainment level or in sparking some reflection on how we answer, "Who is the monster and who is the man?"

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Flight of Fancy

Alaska Airlines has chartered a flight that will zip above the clouds to watch the coming total solar eclipse that will be seen in the United States on August 21.

They're not selling tickets, although a special giveaway next month will make two seats available to the general public. The rest of the passengers will be selected astronomers and guests.

I'd most certainly love to be on that flight. Observing an eclipse from 35,000 feet would rank up in the cool range of life experiences.

But there's something even more amazing about the flight. Something that makes it even more appealing in the days of modern air travel, which in the eyes of most people who have to do it, sucks.

Alaska Airlines will use an airliner that has 181 seat capacity, but they're limiting the passengers in order that everyone gets the chance to view the eclipse. So there will be fewer than 100 people on this 181-passenger craft, guaranteeing something rarer than a total eclipse:

Legroom.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Good Ol' Social Media

Helping ruin lives and discourage people from helping others in need! It's the best way to enable people who don't know much not only demonstrate that conclusively, but harm others in the bargain!

Monday, June 26, 2017

A New World

Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury Press let loose a first novel by an unemployed single mother, and a whole lot of things happened because of it. The writer was J. K. Rowling and her children's book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Four years after the book came the first movie, which made international stars of Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry, and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger. Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, has kept working as an actor but has a lower profile than his former castmates.

Stone, which swapped Philosopher for Sorcerer when it crossed the Atlantic to the United States (that anniversary will be next year), was the first of seven books telling the story of Harry, "the boy who lived." As an infant, he survived a magical attack by the evil Lord Voldemort that killed his parents. In order to keep him safe from Voldemort -- who seems to have disappeared, but no one is sure -- Harry is kept out of the world of magic and magicians, and given to his non-magical or "Muggle" aunt and uncle. But when he turns 11 and comes of age to study magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, school officials summon him to begin, and he takes his first step into a much larger world than he dreamed existed.

Harry also learns of the evil Voldemort and his role in the deaths of Harry's parents. He meets Hermione and Ron and school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, as well as antagonists like Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. Rowling has a number of delightful scenes showcasing Hogwarts' quirky take on the English boarding school and succeeds in making her central trio of friends utterly charming young people who are easy to root for as they learn and grow through their own courage and determination.

Stone is often classified as a "young adult" book, but it's a better fit in the children's section. The character names telegraph character -- Malfoy's associates are named Crabbe and Goyle, and the teacher who is hardest on Harry is named Snape -- and both the action and the pace are more fit for late tween and early teen readers. The epic conflict that comes in later books is only hinted at in this first one, which fits well because the bulk of the protagonists are themselves 11 and 12. Rowling does an excellent job of giving them properly "childish" roles and adventures in this great struggle -- the extremes and high stakes of the later books would ring untrue with these characters on stage.

But by the same token, Stone shows one of the bricks that will be used to build the character of the people who confront Voldemort more directly as they get older and more powerful. Intentionally or not, Rowling pitches each book at a little bit more mature level as the thinking and responsibility of her main characters matures. The later books don't lose her central vision of what it takes to confront the reality of evil although they do have to haul around the extra pounds of their bestseller's bloat.

Harry and his friends probably helped keep more kids than we can count interested in the idea of reading instead of diving into a screen somewhere. Although others have done it with more art and a smaller page count, Rowling presents a vision of how building good character in the young helps them confront the challenges they face as they enter adulthood -- even if that challenge is the most powerful evil wizard in centuries and taking him on might cost you everything.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Liftoff! Liftoff!

Sometimes Elon Musk sounds like a twit, but his company SpaceX has just launched and landed two rockets into orbit in the last 48 hours.

Cool stuff in space may yet happen before I die.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Grown-Up Problems

Writing at The Spectator, Lara Prendergast notes how a lot of the political commentary thrown about in recent years tends to cast things into terms taken from Harry Potter books and films. She points out that it's not particularly useful way of framing debate, and I think she's definitely onto something.

Throughout Twitter, Facebook political posts and sometimes online opinion pieces, there is no end to labeling President Donald Trump, for example, as Harry's evil enemy, Lord Voldemort. And that does exactly bupkis in addressing the real flaws with Pres. Trump's agenda and actions. His protection-minded trade policy is a serious problem with the one and his inability to shut off his damn Twitter is one with the other. Conservative or libertarian folks disagree with him on those matters and might find common cause with some liberal or progressive people in working against the president. But how do you work with someone who, instead of articulating a position, reposts a meme putting the famed orange mane atop a picture of Ralph Fiennes in full Voldemort make-up? How do you coordinate legislative strategy with people who plan on a mass mooning of a presidential motorcade?

This isn't new. Comic book artist Alex Ross painted a scene in 2006 showing then-president George W. Bush as a vampire biting the neck of the Statue of Liberty. Now, did the Patriot Act and other forms of post-9/11 surveillance need some talking about now and again? Of course. Regular review of a whole lot of government actions is a good idea, and especially of ones that hold so much potential for abuse. And you would not have to talk to too many conservatives before you find some who would enthusiastically support such reviews. Did Ross's painting contribute to that discussion in any way? Nope.

Prendergast closes by pointing out that the world is too complicated to be dealt with by a Sorting Hat. Bingo. Things like that trade policy misconception mentioned above will take some real work and real thought to be thwarted -- and neither Harry, Dumbledore or J.K. Rowling herself are going to be much help.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Put Down the Shovel

Earlier this year, Marvel Comics canceled a couple of titles written by some well-known political and cultural writers, such as Ta-nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. At the time, a company official decided to demonstrate how easily he could place both feet in his mouth by saying that buyers simply weren't interested in the diversity-emphasizing titles that his company was publishing. I have no idea if that's true or not, but it's a dumb thing to say.

I wonder, though, if readers might have some more interest in Hispanic or African-American heroes if they weren't such obvious attempts to pander to a way of thinking that wants them. A lot of readers might be interested in a Hispanic hero, but are they really happy when that hero blows up years of continuity by taking on the role of Spider-Man? The diversity may or may not be a problem, but the obvious smell of a stunt storyline almost certainly is.

Which brings us to Captain America as a Hydra agent, a recent storyline that has turned Steve Rogers into one of the evil organization's top fighters. It involves time-travel and a lot of silliness, and it is almost universally hated. But the tone-deaf leadership of the company isn't finished with it yet, although it's trying to tease some kind of resolution to bring back the real Captain America -- sometime.

The problem? A lot of readers are just tired of waiting for the company to wake up to their mistake and fix it. The writer at The Mary Sue is a little on the snarky side, but I'm betting her complaint is widely shared: Stop teasing us by saying you might end this ridiculous storyline soon and just end it, because we're pretty close to not caring and not picking up the title once it gets back to where it should be.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Han's Older Brother, Chuck, Was Never Seen Again

For some reason, we're going to get a Han Solo Star Wars movie that shows Han's story before he meets Luke, Obi-Wan and the crew. It's a movie that has to clear a very high bar of "Why is this here?" to clear. Which means that the Lucasfilm/Disney people running it are holding some pretty tight reins, and among those people are Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan. Both of them have a decent track record of creating crowd-pleaser movies that are often high-quality as well.

Initially, the thought seemed to be to shake things up a bit by hiring the maverick directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Lord and Miller have worked mostly on comedies, and it apparently their vision of the movie leaned comedic. Kasdan, who helped write Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and is sometimes credited for saving the whole Star Wars franchise from George Lucas' excesses, felt the character was not comedic, but quite a bit more selfish and sarcastic. Push came to shove, and producer Kennedy backed her longtime colleague. Lord and Miller were fired this week. Ron Howard has been tapped to finish the movie.

Lord and Miller themselves have been professional and gracious in their on-the-record comments following being let go. A lot of reaction on some of the entertainment news sites is less so, as Howard is viewed as a "safer" choice than they were and less likely to test the Star Wars universe with something different. More than one writer lamented the change, with some equating the Lord and Miller Solo with Edgar Wright's aborted run on Ant-Man.

Now, I think this is a movie that has no reason whatsoever to exist, but that's because I'm not a Disney shareholder. Even though I'm a Star Wars fan and I enjoyed Rogue One, I'm still on the fence about whether or not I'll see any of these prequels in the theater. After all, "Star Wars" and "prequel" don't inspire confidence already. But we'll see.

In any event, I have to wonder about the complaints. On the one hand, we've got a director who's responsible for Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, among others. On the other, we've got a duo who have directed four movies, one of which is the entertaining The Lego Movie but two of which are 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street. Nothing says Lord and Miller would have bombed or made an awful movie but at worst this is an even swap and is more likely a trade up. I'm still a lot more likely to wait for this to hit Netflix, but now I might not have a backup rental downloaded for the treadmill in case it stinks too bad to finish.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Present, Future, Past

I'll pay my irony fine first and note that I lean skeptical about the value of the internet in solving a whole lot of issues that face us in today's world. I hold social media activism to be almost completely ineffective -- it mostly seems to work as a way of bullying private citizens who've said unpopular things or done stupid stuff. I live and work in areas of my state that don't always have the latest and fastest zippadeedillion-MbPS connections and among people who were born way too early for the benefits the online world offers. I think the failure of Los Angeles schools' "buy every student an iPad" was the most instruction that superintendent had done in years.

So you'd think that Andrew Keen's The Internet Is Not the Answer would be right up my alley. And although it's got a lot to recommend it, much of the complaint that Keen levels against the online world varies between snootery and lamenting the post-bovine exodus notice of the barn door position.

The first section of Answer outlines the creation of the technology and software that eventually became our modern internet, highlighting different milestones along the way such as the development of browsers and the interactive "Web 2.0" that allowed online retail to take off. Keen suggests the originators of the internet's "prehistoric" ancestors in the 1940s through the 1980s were motivated by Cold War concerns and desires to spread knowledge and information around as widely as possible. But most of the modern features of our online world have come from people who saw the potential to make a whole lot of money. Keen may not like this, but short of government ownership of the internet, it's hard to see many other ways it could have developed. And although the monetized internet presents several problems, it does in fact help solve a lot of others and allow more people to access more information and benefits than they ever have.

Keen also includes another lament against the way that modern technology has allowed folks to flood the marketplace with music, books, articles and such that aren't very good, drowning some of the better art and creativity in mediocrity. Video processing technology means that anyone with a few thousand dollars can pretend to be Steven Spielberg with a camera, but not everyone with a few thousand dollars has Spielberg's vision and gifts. A lot of these kinds of complaints amount to a lament that the barbarians are no longer at the gates -- they've bought the house next door and are decorating their mailbox with the skulls of their vanquished foes. But who is Keen to judge who are barbarians, who are not and whether or not that skull-sculpture is actually more interesting than whatever the community art collective stuck in the window of its subsidized downtown loft?

Keen's strongest points address things like way that many of these companies make immense profits from data we give them for free, and how the game is rigged against people who figure the company should pay them for the data. It leads him to suggest that, rather than an internet user Bill of Rights, we really need an internet entrepreneur's Bill of Responsibilities. But the success of the Volstead Act offers a pretty clear example of how easy it is to force or coerce people into being responsible. No, the internet isn't the answer. Until we get a clearer idea of just what question we're asking, though, figuring out any answer is going to be a tough job.
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Complaints against the modern university's production of weapons-grade balloon juice have been around for a long time, although they have mostly been the province of more conservative-minded folk. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind gave respectable cover for people who would identify as liberal but who were seeing goofy ideas grab hold of their respective disciplines and render them inaccurate, distorted or in many cases, just plain silly. It's kind of interesting to look on some of those works some years down the line and see if their alarm was warranted.

The concepts of literary criticism and theory were beginning their inroads in 1997, when Australian history professor Keith Windschuttle published his The Killing of History. Although he would later move significantly rightward in his politics, Windschuttle was still a centrist when Killing was published. And like many moderate or leftist folks who have to confront views similar to their own taken to extremes, he seems somewhat at sea in parts of his argument.

Windschuttle's core claim is that folks who practice a broad range of politicized writing and study that's often lumped together as "theory" are exerting their influence on historical research and writing. His view as a historian is that such writing needs to communicate the central facts of its subjects in the clearest and most engaging manner possible. Writing about the Civil War as a whole, for example, needs to include things like major battles and some of the people and forces that played roles in them. A book focused on a diary of a poor farm family affected by Lincoln's 1863 conscription order lights up a small corner of that time, but someone who learns it backwards and forwards has not learned the history of the Civil War.

But the literary theorists and social critics were claiming that just that kind of change was needed to do "real history," and focus on the voices previously drowned out by the privileged few. Windschuttle acknowledges the gaps, but says reconstruction of the missing material is a job for a novelist, not a historian.

Windschuttle spends a lot of time explaining and exploring the roots of the theories that offer this new and to his mind, vague and often inaccurate form of history. He ventures into some very deep weeds in these sections, devoting a number of pages to critiquing, for example, the idea that Karl Popper's falsifiability model is useful for historical research. Some of these are far too jargon-rich for folks who don't work with history for a living, and Windschuttle writes in a mostly academic style that doesn't much leaven these pages.

More interesting to us in 2017 are Windschuttle's cautions against the ultimate result of history modified by theory and social criticism. When we see people insisting that statues be removed and building names be changed in order to wipe "unpleasant" history from our public view, we can see that although history ain't dead yet, it's got a pretty bad cough that it ought to see the doctor about.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Good Days Indeed

It occurs to me that in this mid-June, when we have the largest amount of sunlight available to us, we sports fans are also not distracted by basketball, football or hockey. We can therefore concentrate on baseball.

This seems quite appropriate to me, and worth enjoying.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Getting Closure

I am trying to figure out a reason not to shut Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College down, burn the buildings, salt the earth and erect a memorial saying, "Here died free speech, common sense, the rule of law and Western civilization at the hands of thug toddlers, cowardly administrators and the fact that no one involved had a single damned clue."

I'm having a hard time doing so.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Other D-Day!

In honor of Dad, who taught us many things.

Some of which he may regret:


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dad of the Century

Just in time for Father's Day, some collected advice from Homer Simpson. Homer edged out Al Bundy this year, although Chicago's best-known high school football star turned shoe salesman is expected to make another strong run for Father of the Year in 2018.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Fairytale Wedding?

Ah, Internet! When you have almost convinced me that you are the province of troglodytes, the vacuous and those in need of the swiftest of kicks in the pants, you go and find something like this item.

A couple was taking their wedding photos on the street when a little girl walked by with her mother. Seeing the bride in her white wedding dress, the girl immediately thought she was the princess on the cover of her favorite book. Her new heroine posed for a couple of pictures with her and gave her a flower from her bouquet.

Shandace Lerma, Scott Robinson and their photographer Stephanie Cristalli make up for a whole lot of 140-character worthlessness. Kudos.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Growin' Up

A decade ago, columnist Diana West took aim at what was then a burgeoning flight from adulthood among 20-somethings in the United States and connected it to the nation's seeming inability to defend the civilization and culture that had created and strengthened it.

In The Death of the Grown-Up, West argued that the flowering of the Baby Boom generation in the 1950s began a national trend of focusing not on people with experience, wisdom and knowledge but instead on young people with angst, restlessness and a hankerin' for whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. West suggests that the exaltation of youth culture, channeled through music and other entertainment media, reduced the appeal and importance of "grown-up" virtues like self-discipline and delayed gratification, with consequent cultural, societal, political and economic problems. And rather than self-correcting, society doubled down on its youth-ophilia to the degree that much of the entertainment, popular culture and advertising we see presupposes youthful and youthful-appearing-ness as not just a virtue but the height of virtues. So that now, when the edifice of Western civilization that created the freedom we all enjoy, is under attack, we can't defend it. And we might even be cooperating in pulling it down.

West scores a number of points and has quite a bit of fun with supposed adults who spend their time playing video games while living in their parents' basement. But she's a columnist writing a polemic rather than an in-depth look at a cultural phenomenon, and her attitude comes across as cranky rather than critical. One of her main worries seems to be that our lack of adulthood hamstrings us in the cultural battle with Islamicism and Islamist terror. That's certainly a point, but the kind of glorification of transience she deplores and comments against should trouble us whether we were in a cultural showdown or not. Plus the political correctness that she sees as the core of our current weakness doesn't really need adolescence to fuel it. West's rant is fun if you agree with her but empty if you don't, and offers little in the way of solutions beyond turning down the music, getting rid of the ball cap and getting a job. And staying off her lawn.
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Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, writing ten years later, is working the same field as West did, but his The Vanishing American Adult tackles its subject matter with significantly more seriousness and more focus on solutions than symptoms.

Sasse is a Harvard-educated historian who came to the Senate after a six-year term as president of Midland University. He also sees a generation failing to move beyond its adolescent infatuation with its own awesomeness, but he looks for historical causes and finds what he thinks to be solutions based on them. This isn't a scholarly work with a lot of footnotes, although there are endnotes for the curious and a moderate index.

Part of the problem, Sasse says, is that the very natural desire of parents to keep their children from harm has put them into situations where they have rarely, if ever, been forced to think for themselves, face hard choices, cope with adversity or endure hardship now in return for a gain later. The problem will boil down, as he moves through the book, to a culture that does not invest real time or self in anything it does, from vacationing to reading to work. The solution will come from reacquiring those habits, and that will happen at the direction of parents who want their children to be able to cope with life. Such moves will mean recovery of the understanding of adolescence it initially bore -- a transitional period when children acquire adult habits, understanding and skills -- and abandoning its current meaning as a goal to be reached and retained as long as plastic surgery and silliness make possible.

Sasse has a better handle on the real problem than West does and better ideas of how to counter it -- or at least, he has asked more questions of the problem in order to find its roots. A number of his ideas -- helping young people learn how to suffer, persevere and handle adversity instead of avoiding it, for example -- are on target. But in this book, anyway, he doesn't have much of a notion as to how these solutions can be applied to communities where none of the fabric of adulthood remains, such as devastated inner cities. He more or less acknowledges that but doesn't go much farther.

Vanishing is still a better book about the United States' eternal adolescence than is Death of the Grown-Up, and thinking about what it says much more likely to produce something concrete. It may not have everyone's roadmap out of the snowflake culture in which we seem inundated, but it's got a pretty good one for enough people to get things started and figure out how to help the rest.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Australian for "Turkey"

The old Foster's Lager "How to speak Australian" ad campaign would show pictures of sizable items and label them with a word for a much smaller item -- such as a picture of a shark with the word "guppy" -- then show one of the big Foster's "oilcans." "Fosters," the announcer would say. "Australian for 'beer.'"

When it comes to an extinct species of turkey, Progura gallinacea, the campaign may have been more on target than the company realized. The bird was as tall as a kangaroo and unlike modern turkeys, it could fly. The largest specimens found in the fossil record suggest a size of about 15 pounds, which is a goodly weight of flying bird and would have deterred the New England Puritans from feasting on it or doing anything else to irritate it.

But Progura lived in the Pleistocene Era, which ended just under 12,000 years ago, and so did not overlap humans during any period for which we have historical records. Which is probably just as well -- the practice of selling turkey legs at Renaissance fairs to simulate primitive barbarian food would have been significantly more difficult when said legs come from a critter as much as six feet tall.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Spies Like Us, Eh?

During the years of World War II before the United States entered the conflict, Canada proved to be a very useful partner in below-the-radar connections between the US, which it bordered, and Great Britain, of which it was a part. One such connection was Special Training School No. 103 on the northwest shores of Lake Ontario, colloquially known as "Camp X." Several hundred people were trained there for covert operations behind enemy lines during the war, taking full advantage of its prime location for relaying shortwave radio messages and its proximity to a wealth of French-speaking recruits in Quebec. A joint Canadian-Hungarian television show, premiering in 2015, showed a fictionalized version of the camp and the work of some of its recruits. X Company ended a three-season run in March.

The show focused on one team of agents operating first in France and then, for the final season, in Poland. It also involved a German officer and his wife, as well as agents back at the main camp in Canada. The hook for the first season was the attempt to integrate Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey) into the team, in order to take advantage of his photographic memory. But Alfred also suffers from synesthesia, and sudden loud noises or shocks can render him nearly catatonic. The gruff commander, Duncan Sinclair (Canadian TV mainstay Hugh Dillon), pushes Alfred onto a team over the objections of its leader Aurora Luft (√Čvelyne Brochu), propaganda guru Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), muscle man Neil Mackay (Warren Brown) and radio/tech whiz Harry James (Connor Price).

The first season concerned operations in the French countryside and near Paris in 1941 and early 1942. Different German leaders or scientists are about to develop something that could strengthen the German war effort and team members must discover their secrets or end their threat by more lethal means. The backdrop storyline is the risk Alfred's strengths and weaknesses pose for the team and the realization that a lost comrade may not be lost at all. Countering the work of the spies is Gestapo officer Franz Faber (Torben Liebrecht), who with his wife Sabine (Livia Matthes) has a son with Down's Syndrome -- something at best shameful and at worst treasonous for the perfect race of the Third Reich.

Season two picks up the pace as the team tries to gain the trust of the Fabers and gain intelligence from Franz. Aurora pretends to befriend Sabine by taking advantage of the young woman's loneliness, and other agents seek ways to protect the Jews remaining in Paris from being completely rounded up and sent off to a fate that rumor and whisper are beginning to suggest is unspeakable. The Germans mount a covert sabotage operation against Camp X, bringing some of the camp staff into play alongside Sinclair, especially his aide Krystina Breeland (Lara Jean Chorostecki). The arc of the season bends towards sabotaging Geman intelligence and strengthening French resistance groups to prepare for the August 1942 raid at Dieppe. With the right combination of circumstances, the Dieppe raid could have been the prelude to an invasion of Europe, but its disastrous results only showed the Allies how far they still had to go to be ready for that kind of move. The team is left shattered and separated in the wake of Dieppe's failure.

The final season opens with the remainder of the team at first working to establish new leadership for the French resistance, but that plan and storyline disappear by the second episode and we turn to a secret plan to increase German fuel production based in Poland. Franz and Sabine are being forced to work with the Allied spies, although not entirely unwillingly as they have come to realize the horror that the Nazi regime has imposed on their nation and its values. Aurora and Alfred must deal with their feelings for one another, and Neil faces the reality that brute strength alone can't solve the problems he's dealing with, either internally or externally.

Season one is easily the best, as Alfred's synesthsia more or less disappears in the final two seasons unless a writer remembers it. Both it and his eidetic memory are hinges for major plot and character issues for the entire team over the course of these eight episodes. Season two tries to deepen the characters as it introduces conflicts into their established roles and worldviews, but most of this is done without much grace and although talented, few of the cast can exceed their material. X Company definitely offers the idea that there were honorable German citizens who only wanted to serve their country and had no knowledge of the horrors behind the Nazi curtain. But it's a tepidly-made claim that relies mostly on supporting players. And its role in Faber's actions is made secondary to blackmail.

Season three is a hot mess, throwing aside much of two years' worth of character development in favor of a wrapping-up storyline that takes 10 episodes to tell a story better suited to five. Never rigorous in its concern with actual intelligence tradecraft, in season three X Company abandons all pretense of being about real spies instead of entertainment-biz spies. It abandons its connections to real or realistic WWII events for a glaringly fictional thriller MacGuffin that never convinces.

The season is salvaged by the same strengths that propelled it during the first two -- the world-class acting from the core of its international cast. The Canadian Brochu, English Laskey and Germans Liebrecht and Matthes are much better than the material they're handed and do much more with it than it deserves. Liebrecht and Matthes especially, with the greatest distances to bring their characters, are worth watching in the middle of the fast-forwarding that the rest of the season invites.

Which in the end is a very Canadian thing -- to politely offer the best part of something to someone else. And while this quartet, with some support from Brown, Chorostecki and Dillon, can't completely redeem a wrecked third season, they do enough to put the show as a whole into the plus column.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Taking the Number VIII Train

Geography buff and college student Sasha Trubetskoy studied some history along with his favorite subject, geography, to map out some of the roads the Roman Empire built across Europe.

He then drew them as a subway map:

You may note that while most roads lead eventually to Rome, not all of them do. The lines on the island of Sardinia serve only that island; to get from there to a road that does lead to Rome will require a boat. And while Cato the Elder may have worn himself out insisting Cartago delenda est, it remains a stop on the African coastal line due west of Sicily.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Changing Times

I finally did see Wonder Woman this weekend, and found it pretty darn good. But a curious thing has happened to previews shown before the movie begins. I've always understood them as a way to whet an audience's appetite for movies to be released.

But judging from what I saw, the movie studios very much want me to skip Rough Night, Wish Upon and quite a few others. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Bat-Signal Shines in Vain

Adam West, whose relatively brief portrayal of the Caped Crusader Batman in the late 1960s more or less ended his career as an actor while it offered him a whole new one as a celebrity, passed away Friday at 88.

West donned the intentionally campy version of the cape and cowl in 1966 for a version of the Batman story aiming at kids while serving up as much goofy fun as possible for the adults -- and no small amount of double entendre whenever Julie Newmar did her guest spot as Catwoman. The best way to describe it is that the show's creators and actors didn't take themselves or their parts seriously but played it as straight as an arrow for those who did -- mostly children.

Compare West's version to the 1940s Columbia serials Batman and Batman and Robin. The costumes, props, action and story are just about as silly as anything William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr came up with. Television's Joker Cesar Romero didn't shave his mustache and had white greasepaint failing to cover it up; in the 1949 Batman and Robin Johnny Duncan wears pink tights over his legs, which are rather more adultly hirsute than would be proper for Bruce Wayne's youthful ward, Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, the Boy Wonder. But the Columbia pictures took themselves quite seriously. The small-screen version of Gotham City had a much more realistic view of what they were doing and thus both had and provided much more fun.

Adam West was a big part of that. You have to wonder if his ability to be the butt of a joke helped him when he found out that after the show ended, he couldn't get many roles anymore, and wound up living off that short three seasons of work from 50 years ago. Actors have been known to take themselves waaaaaay too seriously (such as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio on climate or Ted Nugent on foreign policy). Maybe West's sense of humor helped him settle with the idea that he would spend the rest of his life talking about that one role, with a few things coming his way now and again that themselves mostly stemmed from the notoriety it brought.

Either way, he brought a whole lot of fun to a whole lot of people and that's not a bad legacy at all.

Friday, June 9, 2017

People Not to Go to the Movies With

Writing at The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey notes how the ethnicity and religion of the star of the new Wonder Woman movie has put many cats amongst several sets of pigeons.

Gal Gadot is Israeli and Jewish. She served a two-year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, a requirement for most citizens of her country. So naturally Lebanon banned the movie.

That's the start, as Bailey works her way through a mare's nest of opinions about what it means for a fictional character in a summer blockbuster to be played by a woman of a particular religion and ethnic background. Is she to be considered white? Is she an oppressor? Does intersectionality, a concept whereby one trumps another perceived victim by accumulating more victim categories, play a role in how we should feel about the movie's success and Gadot's stardom? Is the reality of a blockbuster with a woman at the top of the bill a triumph for women or a disaster for people of color and oppressed or potentially oppressed religious minorities because Gadot "looks" white? Or is she white, since Jewish people have been historically oppressed through much of history, mostly by evil Christians? Or since today's Israelis are themselves supposed to be evil oppressors in their modern nation-state, do we go back to seeing her as a non-victim again?

I have no idea, and even less interest. I finally plan on seeing the movie this weekend, and the only thing I will demand is that none of these people are in the auditorium when I do.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Test Pattern

Ah, moving! It doth cast the blog awry. Perhaps more anon.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Down, Dino


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dino Paul Crocetti, better known as Dean Martin. Martin was an all-round showman, best known for his singing although he acted and hosted a variety show that displayed a pretty good comedic talent. He died on Christmas day in 1995.

The above cover is from his second full album, Pretty Baby, and may depict ol' Dean wondering what he can possibly do when faced with the temptation placed before him.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fit to Remember


Thanks for saving Western civilization!

Monday, June 5, 2017

End Program

So 500 years after Marty Luther's little door redecoration, a church in Wittenberg, Germany, installed a "robot priest" to give blessings. It uses a touch screen, can dispense its words in five different languages and its hands light up.

There are a lot of responses to this exhibit, which the church says is mainly done as a way to spark discussion about technology's role in religious life and faith. One could note that this is, for many people, the perfect priest because it does only one thing: Bless them in a language of their choosing. In fact, for a significant slice of modern society, this idea represents their perfect God, since it would be a God who asked nothing of them and accepted everything they did as OK, no harm no foul.

It could be a sign that people almost always look for novelty spectacle instead of substance. You can print out the pre-recorded blessing the robot priest gave you, along with the scripture it quoted -- somehow that's way more exciting than the printed Bible that offers some context for that scripture?

All of those ideas occurred to me, but the one that jumped to the front was that this is all happening in Wittenberg, where Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the church door in his own bid to start debate and reform what he saw as a corrupted church hierarchy and theology. Is a society that oohs and aahs over something that's the functional equivalent of a Zoltar machine capable of handling a debate with almost 100 talking points? Or would the bottom of the sheet of paper be crowded with everybody's "TL;DR" notation?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rumble in the Cosmos

The LIGO detectors in Washington and Louisiana "heard" its third gravity wave just after the first of the year, and researchers published the report late last month.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that gravity would travel or propagate in waves, like light and radiation do. But gravity's weakness compared with the others meant those waves would be very tiny and almost impossible to detect. Which in fact they were up until the creation of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory a few years ago. Technology which wasn't even a dream during Einstein's lifetime has proved his theory to be largely correct.

Even this super-sensitive detector can catch only hints of the gravity waves that all objects have, as far as we know. And it catches them from amazingly powerful events, such as the orbital dance between two massive black holes, the most powerful gravitational sources we know. But technology will improve on the LIGO, so that smaller gravitational waves might be discovered. More study may even reveal that gravity has a wave-particle duality resembling that of light.

Now the universe has been weird for just about as long as human beings have lived in it -- and probably was before, but if intelligent life existed then it hasn't been talking. Thanks to the LIGO and subsequent and improved detectors, it seems like it's going to get weirder.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pain in the Grass

The town government of Gardendale, AL, joins the list of political bodies that needs a nice swift Gibbs slap to alert it to a reality: People who insist that teenagers pay $110 for a business license to mow yards for summer spending money are, best-case scenario, the stupidest people in three counties.

To his credit, the mayor of the town recognizes that issuing citations to kids who don't have the license would be a really good way to get his town mocked by everyone with a medulla, and says he would like to work out a way to avoid that. The real prize goes to a man with a lawn-mowing business mentioned in the story. He is supposed to have said that if he sees the granddaughter of a woman quoted in the article mowing yards for pay again, he will call the city of Gardendale and put them in the position of issuing one of those fines.

The story is second-hand and may not be true. But if it is, I suspect that gentleman is not cutting grass to earn money. He's cutting it because he's facing an IQ test and is trying to incapacitate his closest competition.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The View Out of the Office Window

If you're Dutch airline pilot JPC van Heijist, the view out of your office window is pretty spectacular. And you have the photography skills to share it.

Lest one be worried van Heijist is performing the aeronautical version of texting while driving, it should be noted that pilots have co-pilots who can take the wheel if they want to snap a photo. As well as auto-pilots. So he probably won't get a ticket or anything, unless he lands someplace like San Francisco or Chicago. He could draw a fine in the former because it's the kind of city government that can't let something go by without offering its advice or coercing some behavior. He would draw a fine in the latter because the city is desperately starved for money.

Unless his uncle is an alderman. Then he's off the hook.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It's No Contest!

CNN wins the title for the stupidest article connected to the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The cover, of course, featured the actual 1967 Beatles amid cutouts of a number of famous and obscure people, including wax figures of the 1964 version of the world's best-known Liverpudlians. It's become iconic, and served as the basis for the cover Frank Zappa wanted for his We're Only in It for the Money album. But a nervous record company, smelling potential lawsuits, put the Pepper-parody cover on the inside gatefold when the Beatles' record company objected.

CNN, in the person of Brandon Griggs, assessed the cover as too full of obscurities (which was intentional from the get-go) as well as too white and too male. The majority of the folks on the cover were chosen by the Beatles themselves. But rather than take them to task, Griggs puts cover co-creator Jann Haworth, 75, on the target for helping cause the problem. She pleads guilty in the article of having 1967 ways of thinking in 1967 instead of being woke enough to recognize the needs for minorities and women the way the much smarter Griggs can do from his perch in 2017.

Philistine.