Sunday, March 30, 2008

A little behind on my movie viewing

I like the 21st Century. The movies they make today may be crap, but I can actually watch the movies they made when they weren't making crap. I can guarantee you if I was actually living in, say, 1970, I wouldn't be able to see the movies they made in 1970, unless I flew to Cannes or lived with a cinema-owner or something.

Courtesy of Netflix, I've been catching up on the groovy movies.

First, Two Lane Blacktop (1971). This is a road movie, a genre in which (apparently) the landscape is a character, and the humans characters go on a journey to find themselves. Often they find themselves in the Mojave desert in a diner shaped like a cigar, and if they do, this would be where the scenery would get its big Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor. In general, road movies are all very much like looking out of a car window, except the car isn't in lane 4 of the I-405, which my car usually is.

In the grand tradition of road movies, nothing actually happens in Two Lane Blacktop. (I think I once went to an all nighter of road movies, and I remember nothing happening being an important theme.) However, it was continually interesting to watch James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as the leads in the movie. For some reason I like watching video of people I only know from music and still photos, though I still would have preferred it if something had occurred. Perhaps, for instance, they could have gone to a 'haunted house' and found out the 'ghost' was a man who coveted his uncle's inheritance, and at the end the man could have said, "I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids!"

I jest, of course. The Philip Glass-like minimalism hides a complex substructure, evidenced mainly by the choice of fantasy the GTO driver spins as he talks to his hitchhikers. There's a 2001-style stateliness to it that rewards someone with the patience to watch carefully. Me, I just prefer to have my complex substructure macaroni'd with daleks, trebuchets and clever puns. I guess that's why I like The Road Warrior; Mad Max's road journey to find himself used the de rigeur tropes of nitrous oxide injection, souped-up Fords, masculine angst and long deserted roads but... also involved hundreds of bisexual leather-clad wrestlers on motorcycles fighting with crossbows and sawn-off shotguns! Perfect!

The President's Analyst (1967). A feast of paranioa, spy vs. spy, shrink humor and tremendous sight gags. Certainly the funniest 'hippie-freak-out' scene on film. (The hippies come tumbling straight outta Cafe Wha' - the movie certainly knows its counterculture.) The president's analyst, of course, knows all the president's secrets. Russians and American Secret Servicemen - and British MI6, and even the Canadians - try to capture him. Or, kill him. Not surprisingly, the analyst becomes paranoid - and, because of National Security, he's the only man in America who can't see a shrink about it.

In amongst all of this, there's Barry (Eve of Destruction) McGuire as Old Wrangler. And there's a crazy Cyberpunk ending. Yes, I know cyberpunk wasn't invented until 1982. The movie really was before its time. The ending is still in the process of coming true. It reminded me of Top Secret! but is far less innocent. And James Coburn is always cool.

Swallows Day

Yesterday was the Swallows Day Parade in San Juan Capistrano.

capistrano swallows day

The Swallows live in Argentina over the winter, and return to the town every year on March 19th. They supposedly take up residence in the SJC Mission, the Jewel of the Missions. I happen to know - because it's my office, and it has windows - that many of them build their nests in the eaves of a wooden building about ten miles away. Since the Mission is more famous, having been in town longer by a couple of years, the city celebrates the return of the Swallows with a big parade past the Mission. This is the largest non-motorized parade in America; there are hundreds of entrants. Most of them are horse-drawn vehicles or horse riders, although I saw a few llamas and donkeys here this year. In this parade, even the Shriners abandon their little cars and pull their giant fez by hand.

San Juan Capistrano is a cowboy town, and many people here remember when there were more horses than cars. There are still horse trails everywhere, and in the winter, the smell of stables drifts over the town as thick as molasses. There are two Indian bands in the town who are regularly in the parade, the Juanenos and the Acjachemen; over the last few years, as more and more Mexicans come to live in SJC, the ratio of Indians to Cowboys has changed remarkably, and the bright-feathered costumes of the Mexicans now outshine the drab black of the bolo-tie'd cowboys on their austere brown horses and their long-skirted cowgirl women with Derringers in their boots.

Of course, I didn't take any pictures of any of that. (There are some on the websites linked above.) Instead here's a view from north of the parade route where the parade entrants park their horse trailers before riding to the staging area.

Capistrano Swallows day

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I can hear trumpets!

One of the stranger things found in Tutankhamun's tomb - at least from my point of view, which regards canopic jars and amulets as perfectly ordinary - was a trumpet. The Egyptians left us many pictures of musical instruments, often guitars or a percussion instrument called a sistrum, but I don't recall seeing many trumpets. It's probable that the item was actually a signalling device used in battles, rather than a musical instrument. If so, that'll make what's coming up next sound a little less weird.

tutankhamun trumpet

There were actually two found in the tomb, a silver one and a bronze one. They were tuned differently. People being what they are, they were determined to play them to see what they sounded like. The silver trumpet was played on BBC radio in 1939, using a modern mouthpiece, whereupon it promptly split apart. The bronze trumpet survived being played in 1939 and in 1941, the last time without a mouthpiece inserted. Of course, there's no available recording of the 'real' trumpet. The general consensus was that the trumpets made poor musical instruments are were probably used rhythmically in their mid-range for signalling purposes.

In the folder named trumpet here, you can listen to or download an mp3 of Bandsman Tappern sounding the crap out of the silver one, just before it split. Unfortunately, being a bandsman, melody is not his strong point. Since that may be what the instrument was originally intended for, I suppose I can't complain. Shame we don't have one of the guitars.

Egyptian Guitar

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Freedom Fries with that?

When the Americans decided they weren't going to like the French any more they renamed French Fries Freedom Fries. Everyone had a good laugh at that. Except the Americans, that is. Some of them clearly think that tactics which worked in Junior High are going to work against sovereign nations. Anyway, amongst those having a good laugh were the British.

So here's a story. Once upon a time, there was a breed of dog called the German Shepherd. It was very popular in Britain – and remains popular to this day. But you won't find many people there who would call one a German Shepherd. In England, the breed was renamed the Alsatian.

The British did not want a dog with the word "German" in its name after World War I.

In 1919, when the English Kennel Club gave the breed a separate register, some 54 animals were included, but by 1926 the ranks had swelled to 8,058, such was the unprecedented success of the dog. At the end of the War it was thought that the breed would not flourish were the word German to appear in its name and it was therefore decided to call the breed the Alsatian Wolf Dog after the German-French border area of Alsace-Lorraine.

Dog breeders seem to have quite a few little peculiarities. The Nazis, for instance, did not like White German Shepherds, and had them removed from the register. The white dogs, they argued, were weaker. The Nazis, including Hitler, saw the white coat as an undesirable trait, and further assumed that the white coated dogs' genes paled the darker coated dogs' colors. With little knowledge of science, they blamed the whites for many diseases as well. Germany soon barred white German Shepherds from the conformation ring and the breeding pool. America, always happy to do a bit of Eugenics whenever they get a chance, followed suit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Groupies LP

"the groupies" Earth Records. ELPS-1000

Way back in the groovy era, Alan Lorber decided that the world needed to hear groupies talking about what they did with band members. It's supposedly a sociological documentary, y'know, harrumph, not a piece of titillation.

The resulting file sounds exactly like Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat, even down to the New York accent (as opposed to Classic Groupie, which is LA speak). It differs from Francis the Z significantly in that absolutely no one uses a chicken to measure it. For some strange reason, the English (as they call the British) come out the worst in the perv stakes. How can that be?

At this remove, it's useless either as a documentary or as wank fodder. It's fun if a) you like Uncle Meat or b) you like 1969 in general. It's not fun if you c) believe humans have innate dignity or d) think feminism has had any impact on human behavior. I thought it was quite depressing, but remarkably interesting.

You can stream it from here. In fact, that web page is packed full of interesting groupie trivia, so you might want to read it anyway.

If you hate streaming, you can download the mp3s of both sides for your iPod from here instead, from the folder "Groupies mp3"

Warnings: For the first few minutes of each side there's an incredibly irritating echo – ooh, I mean far out sound effect, man. It settles down after a while.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thank you, Lyle - my sponsored banker's letter.

Apparently, I will be required to bail out bankers personally, otherwise, I'm told, the entire planet is doomed.

I fell asleep and dreamed the nice banker I bailed out sent me a thank you letter, like children in underserved countries used to have to do if you sponsored them at school for a water pump for their village.

It looked like this.

Scathing Guardian article, by the way. Worth a read

It did have "Bear" in the name, y'know

The sudden collapse of Bear Stearns seems to have taken everybody by surprise. There's an article about it in today's New York Times.

Just like that, some people’s stakes of $100 million or more in Bear were ravaged, and senior executives ... were furious. Entering the weekend, Bear executives felt confident that the firm could be sold for several billion dollars, if not more.

Apparently the firm encouraged employees to buy shares in the firm. Uh oh.

“My life has been flushed down the drain,” said one person. There was talk Monday that with their life savings nearly depleted, some executives had moved quickly, putting their weekend homes on the market.

Not the weekend home...

Bear also told employees that grief counselors were standing by.
"The stability of your world is shattered,” said Ari Kiev, a psychiatrist who counsels financial executives. “You are angry at the firm for failing you. But it’s more than money. It’s the shame and embarrassment. Now the question is, can you pay for the house and do you give up the second car?”

Not the second car too...

I can't tell you how sorry I feel for the executives. No, I really can't.

Another mixed metaphor

Commenter on the internet commiserating with an author about a book cover:

It must be frustrating to pour yourself into a book and then have it saddled with an albatross.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Album Cover Generator Meme

The Boston Globe column Brainiac has a "meme" (a game that spreads by word of mouth) on the theme of creating your own Indie Rock band CD cover.

Briefly, you generate a band name from Wikipedia's random page selector tool, (you must use the name of the first page that comes up), a CD name from the last four words of the last quotation on quotationspage's random quote selector, and for a cover you use the third picture on Flickr's Most Interesting page.

Then you Photoshop (or whatever) the elements into an album cover.

Hey, it works!

There are over a thousand more at the Flickr page mentioned in the Globe's piece.

See via Making Light.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Amen Break

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the Amen Break, a drum break which has jumped from its original place on a single record and now resides on hundreds of tracks, like a piece of rogue DNA.

You can watch a handy video about it at YouTube.

Michael S Schneider, author of A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, has also heard about the Amen Break, and being a mathmetician, decided to study it for its conformance to the principles of the the Golden Ratio. This proportion has long been held to be "aesthetically pleasing" and while I doubt if anyone knows why it should be, it certainly seems to be something people aim at, consciously or unconsciously, or say "That's the one I like" if offered a choice of two rectangles one of which is in the Golden Ratio.

Schneider finds that the Amen Break does conform to the Golden Ratio. I'll let him explain it here on his website. In my mind the Golden Ratio can't describe a rhythm, so this may explain why this frantic beat still sounds pleasing to the ear.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Roy Harper and Jimmy Page - video

YouTube has a new and exceptionally lovable 30 minute interview/busk with Roy Harper and Jimmy Page. It's from the OGWT, 1984.

They are, apparently, 2000 ft up in Langdale overlooking Blea Tarn. That's here.

The first video is the two of them talking to the Cheekie Chappie from OGWT whose name escapes me. Jimmy is extraordinarily candid, possibly because the air is too thin for him to oxygenate and smoke at the same time.
The second video is them playing Same Old Rock from Stormcock.
The third video is them playing Hangman from Jugula.

Lovely interview.

You can buy Stormcock from Roy Harper's website.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jimmy Page and the Holy Grail

Paul Reeves, a London fashion designer in the seventies, has a sale with Sotheby's this month: “The Best of British: Design from the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Paul Reeves has been described as the man who dressed Led Zeppelin in the 1970's. As a connoisseur of Led Zeppelin's 70's clothing, I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to take credit for it, but ooookaaay, as they say these days. Now he's an art specialist. I hoped that he did not bring the same aesthetic to his art collection, and he does not seem to have done so. He has solicited items from a number of his rockist friends, and one item at the auction is a beautiful tapestry from Jimmy Page's collection. It is a 24-foot long piece called "The Quest of the Holy Grail: The Achievement", by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. It was rolled up for some time after hanging in Page's Windsor House for many years. I can't really show the colors and sweep of this Pre-Raphaelite tapestry in the little photos allowed on a blog, so here is a small teaser.

I've seen a photo of it in situ, behind the billiard table, and it is immense. Apparently it took three weavers two years to complete, finishing in 1894. There are a number of other Page items on the block. You can download the catalogue from Sotheby's.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Malls and Ninjas, Stanfords and Milgrams

The Shrine of the Mall Ninja website preserves the online posts of a person claiming to be an armed guard in a mall. He* didn't start out with that bald statement. He began on a board called GlockTalk asking for help on designing body armor. And then asking for help on armament. And then making strange, long, detailed comments about how much lethal force he was expected to expend in his job - which was guard in a mall.

A small sample, from the Shrine:
Gecko45 writes:
Thanks to everybody for the help. I am now thinking that the best thing to do is to have my wife make an “undervest” with pouches front and rear for the additional plates. This would let me have three plates in front (probably too hot and two in back. What I’m also asking her to do is to sew in a sleeve for an ASP collapsible baton. Right now I’m taping the ASP to my right calf (the left calf is where I have my G27). It’s okay for me to talk about my job, as long as I’m not specific. I am the Sergeant of a three-man Rapid Tactical Force at one of America’s largest indoor retail shopping areas. Although there are typically between fifteen and twenty normal security officers working the beat there, we decided a while ago that it would be best to have a specilized force for violent individuals. We use modified electric vehicles and can be anywhere on a given floor within eight and a half minutes.Naturally, the regular security people are unarmed. We “RTFers”, by arrangement with the local police, carry high-strength OC spray and batons. If we have a full tactical alert and permission from the local LEOs we also have a Mossberg 500 with less-lethal rounds and two K-frame Smith .38s loaded with 158gr. LRN.Basically, the situation is that we get the call, we lock up the situation, put everything five by five, and cordon the area until the local authorities arrive. We’re cops, we just don’t get the glory. I am not permitted to carry Glocks on duty; however, when my wife picks me up from work I strap on the “Deadly Duo” of a 27 and 23, each with Bar-Sto .357 bbl.

There are many more of his posts preserved at Shrine of the Mall Ninja, documenting what appears to the be the psychological peculiarities of a man maddened by his helplessness as a lowly functionary in what he would prefer to see as a position of heavily-armed unquestionable authority. It's kind of a fun read, in a scary and modern way. It beats reading supposedly true books about people who claim to be Jewish refugees from the Nazis who were adopted by wolves, anyway.

The website's archive reminds me very strongly of some of the psychological experiments from last century. The famous Milgram Experiment showed that people will apply deadly force if 'authorized' to do so, with really no training or indoctrination required. The equally famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed that if you divide a homogeneous group of people into two opposing groups, call one group "guards" and give them priviliges and call the other group "prisoners" and take away their privileges, then they will, in short order, begin behaving completely in character. To an outsider, these experiments are scary and weird; surely we ourselves would never lose our natural humanity if put in those positions? The Mall Ninja, a man with a uniform and a mission, seems to point in the same direction as the formal experiments.

Except with more gun porn than you can shake a Heckler & Koch at.

*Ok, "he" is an assumption. And he or she is probably a troll. But still.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mixed metaphors

I know I rag on the LA Times. I wouldn't read it if I didn't usually agree with it.

Today they published a letter about corn farmers, ethanol production and fattening sweeteners that said in part, "The US is putting all its eggs in one basket and it's going to bite us on our ever-widening collective rear end."

To which I can only say, keep that damn basket on a leash already.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Reading and Gaming in 2008

E. Gary Gygax died this week. When he co-developed Dungeons & Dragons in the Seventies, I'm sure he did not realize that his passing would make all the major newspapers, including the New York Times.

The NYT Op-Ed on the subject says that geek culture has won - the types of people who sloped off and met up with a dungeon master for a weekend of D&D thirty years ago are now the people in demand because of their skills, and the vocabulary they - I guess 'we', although I've never played D&D myself - use is now the lexicon everyone needs to communicate in the modern world. I'm not completely convinced, but writer Adam Roberts makes a good case for it.

While I was reading the article, I noticed that NYT articles have an innovation that makes them rather modern themselves. If you double click on any word, your browser takes you to a thesaurus and displays the definition. I hadn't realized that until today, and I'm still rather gobsmacked by it. It's a simple enough thing, I suppose, but I've never seen it before (except in writing applications on my own computer). On the other hand, I've seen many sites that will link a word with a blue underline and when you double click on the word you get an ad for acupuncture or a balloon-thingy telling you that tires are half-price at Ed's Tires of [your town name here] or some other completely unrelated POS that has trained me never to click on those blue links. But this actually works.

It's not perfect, mind. Adam Roberts, according to the article, works for Wired (a magazine), and when I double clicked on the word 'wired', the definitions ranged in tone from fuddy-duddy to funky, but not one of them told me Wired was a magazine (or a website). I suppose they are deliberately trying to keep the Ed's-tire-iness out of the definition engine, but I still found it funny.

I wonder if a newspaper that is its own thesaurus will improve reading scores? There's always a kerfuffle about declining reading scores. I think Cassandra has been wailing about reading scores since approximately the time I first learned to read newspapers. People may have even whined about them before I learned to read, too. An indignant article in the Guardian last month pointed out that the studies which show a declining interest in reading often specifically leave out reading on the internet. To the framers of the study, the web simply doesn't count, I suppose because it they think it is a newfangled fad like Beatles Haircuts or Pet Rocks and will soon go away leaving us all feeling sheepish and vaguely fooled.

The Guardian article, Dawn of the Digital Natives, dissects a National Endowment for the Arts study called To Read or Not to Read, which says (I guess; I haven't *ahem* read it) that we are all Doomed due to a lack of literary culture. Teenagers' reading skills are down one percentage point from teenagers tested in 1988. The Guardian points out that we knew they were going to be - they didn't test well in 1999. But nine year olds, tested for the current study, jumped seven points (about 1.2%) over nine year olds tested in 1999. So today's youngsters are reading better than 1999's youngsters. Not so much of a crisis after all.

And the NYT's dowdy but clever dictionary can't help but improve that further.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pitchfork and torches time!

You know those women who talk to other women through the stall dividers in women's restrooms? Well, they should be banned. Banned, banned, bannedity-banned. And because they should be banned, I want you to pay for policecritters to patrol women's restrooms and toss 'em in the pokey. Because women in women's restrooms say bad things about people, and that's bad. And I shouldn't have to put up with it. And if I shouldn't have to put up with it, it should be against the law.

The LA Times had an Op-Ed article on Saturday called Douse the online flamers which took something close to the above and ran with it. It's by Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur, which I haven't read but I'm sure I don't like. Apparently people are saying bad things about other people on teh intarwebs, so it should be banned. Not sure exactly what: the internet, people, badness. Something has to be banned. Oh, it's "anonymity", apparently. Needs to be banned. He begins by referencing some Web Creation Myth only he is privy to, "the innocent dawn of the Internet Age" when "the idea that we might all be anonymous on the Web promised infinite intellectual freedom. Unfortunately, however, that promise hasn't been realized."

It hasn't? Oh noes! Write a nice print book about it, Andrew! Oh, you already did.

The article goes on, "[t]oday, too many anonymous Internet users are posting hateful content about their neighbors, classmates and co-workers; today, online media is an increasingly shadowy, vertiginous environment in which it is becoming harder and harder to know other people's real identities."

Evidently, everybody but me is spending their time hatin' on each other. (And I'm not doing so well either.)

Like this: "the case of a couple of female Yale Law School students whose reputations have been eternally sullied on an online bulletin board called AutoAdmit by "Sleazy Z," "hitlerhitlerhitler," "The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah" and others. Having been publicly accused of lesbianism with the dean of admissions at Yale Law School, possessing "large false breasts" and indulging in exhibitionistic group sex, the two women filed an amended"

ZOMG! The internet has enabled rude people to be rude about people! Anonymously. And "eternally". Up until now there must never have been an avenue for expressing rudeness. Then the internet comes along and enables hate. Stupid internet. I knew there was something wrong with it.

Being accused by people called hitlerhitlerhitler of having unfeasibly large breasts must be an incredible burden, because of course, everyone on the planet is going to prefer siding with someone called hitlerhitlerhitler on the prestigious AutoAdmit bulletin board over siding with you.

He goes through two more cases. One, unfortunately, resulted in a suicide – it was a tiff between neighbors, a type of personal interaction that clearly was possible only after the invention of Internet Explorer 7 – and one was a fight on Yahoo. Have you ever been on Yahoo? Have you ever even heard of Yahoo? Don't see many hands up there. I have – I'm member of more than twenty Yahoo groups and we've had some knock-down-drag-out fights there, all of which would have been exactly the same, but much, much worse, if they'd been a fight at the Women's Institute, or the Church fete, or the school rummage sale. In fact, the major difference between a storm in a teapot and a storm in a Yahoo group is the wind speeds in a teapot are far higher.

After that thorough review of the hate coursing through the system of tubes we hold dear, he concludes, "these cases indicate that the U.S. Supreme Court soon might need to rethink the civic value of anonymous speech in the digital age. Today, when cowardly anonymity is souring Internet discourse, it really is hard to understand how anonymous speech is vital to a free society."

Yeah, freedom of speech sucks. Whose idea was it anyway? People only use it to hurt each other. Or they do nowadays. It's not clear from the article, but it looks like they didn't before the invention of the internet. Clearly punishing the internet is the way to go.

So what should we do about it, pundit? Apparently we should introduce "more legislation to punish anonymous sadists whose online lies are intended to wreck the reputations and mental health of innocent Americans."

Or alternatively, we could teach innocent Americans the rhyme about sticks and stones. Either way. Your call.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Industrial Ruins - and the Labyrinth of Minos

Jo Walton's post "The Industrial Ruins of Elfland" gives a very different view of abandoned industry. Growing up in post-industrial Wales, the abandonded Ironworks and coal mines and the "dramroads" between them seemed to her to be mysterious places abandoned by elves as they moved inexorably west.

My Aunt Jane lives next to an abandoned ironworks. It's notable because we actually knew what it was. We used to play in it, climbing over the walls. It was a great place for hide and seek, and for castles. I knew what castles were. We didn't have one, but Wales is full of them, I'd been to lots of them. I had no idea what an ironworks was -- if pressed, I'd have figured out from etymology it was somewhere one worked iron, but I wasn't ever pressed about it.

A lovely post, elegiac and yet practical and factual too. No photos, just a look into the mind of a child playing inside the uninhabited shells of the past.

Lost America Night Photography

When I first came to the American west, in 1989, some of the first things to catch my eye were the ruins. It was hard for me to grasp that a place which was virtually empty of people until 1930* could have ruins. American styles of this type, from 1930s to 1965-ish were completely foreign to me. I'd seen a couple of episodes of The Jetsons and I used to watch an MTV program that was set in a 1950s basement, but apart from that, this architecture and decoration seemed simply bizarre. I'd never seen them lived in or worked in, so to see them abandoned didn't really mean anything. It was as if they had only been built by aliens with only one purpose - to be abandoned.

Then, on a more deliberate search one year, I started seeing the Space Age ones. After that, I think I understood a lot more of J. G. Ballard's writing.

(Photo Credit to Lost America.
Reduced in size from the original)

The Lost America website has long exposure night photography of abandoned western ruins. They range from the gas stations of the Okie migration to the airfields and abandoned airframes of the old Cold War bases. Some of them are breathtaking. I spent a long time looking around this site and wishing I'd taken photos and then I read the descriptions about kneeling on broken glass for eight minute exposures and was glad I hadn't. Very interesting site.

*Recently devoid of people, I mean.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Lightning strike

Couldn't resist this picture from The Daily Mail:

(Feb 2008) Lightning strikes the 130ft tall statue of Christ
the Redeemer, which stands atop the 2,296ft Corvocado mountain
above Rio de Janeiro.


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