Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP Pete Seeger

RIP Pete Seeger, dead at 94.

Sometimes I think that one way to look at history is as a map, or flow diagram, of all the events that ever happened, with lines connecting each event to the thing that happened next.  A complete map would just be a jumble of swirls, but if you looked at a portion of it, with an idea in mind, some lines would appear thicker, or somehow more obvious, than their neighbors, and you would be able to discern a probability, or even an inevitability, of a chain of events leading to some ultimate event. A through line appears from the past to a single point of the present. It's pareidolia, a trick of the mind, but it seems obvious when you stare at it. This, I think, is how you get books that say 1815 was the decisive point in history that lead to the modern day, or 1835 was, or the domination of the route to the spice islands, or that Shakespeare must have worshiped the Triple Goddess.

In the case of a blog writer writing a blog post – such as I – then the through-line of history leads up to… me.

And when I look back at it, Seeger is a big part of the through-line to me, even though I've never bought one of his records and have probably heard less than two dozen of his songs.  That's because he was there in just about everything that mattered in my early life.  Unions, like the CIO, the Wobblies, the coal miners, the Lomax recordings, Lead Belly, the influence on Dylan.  The Great Folk Scare in general, and how it pushed rock music to develop  – skiffle and Jimmy Page's first TV break. Folkie Jake Holmes and Led Zeppelin's first big track. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You and the Topanga Canyon people. Civil rights and demonstrations, marchers singing We Shall Overcome.  Hippies and Alice's Restaurant, the famous search for authenticity in music, roots music and Americana.  My parents'  enduring love of folk clubs.  The British miners' strikes, the Three Day Week, the Notting Hill Riots. Thatcher's Britain, the Clash, the Queen's Jubilee.

Seeger and the events he set in motion was the through-line for all of that.

Vale, Pete Seeger.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Drug company has a sad - faces threats

Image from icanhascheezburger.com

Bloomberg Business Week has an article entitled Merck to Bristol-Myers Face More Threats on India Drug Patents.

A threat? What is it?

It seems that India has a compulsory licence process by which it can force pharma companies to allow Indian manufacturers to make their patented drugs more cheaply for sale in India. This could be a threat to the drug company's profits.

In the article there's a quote from the CEO of Bayer:
Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers called the compulsory license “essentially theft.”
If up to a billion Indians get your patented drug at an Indian price, as opposed to the prices Americans pay, then that's a lot of lost profits, right? Poor CEO Marijn Dekkers.

But wait! The Bloomberg article goes on to quote Dekkers (total yearly compensation stated to be €5,623,000 or $7,692,826) as saying:
“We did not develop this medicine for Indians,” Dekkers said Dec. 3. “We developed it for western patients who can afford it.”
Ignoring for a moment what a normal person would feel like after they'd said that to the press, and assuming Dekker was just following orders, let's look at that again. 
"We did not develop this medicine for Indians."
So if Bayer didn't develop it for Indians, Bayer's expected profit from India was nothing - zero, none, zip, nowt. And if an Indian company makes the drug on the cheap and sells it to Indians, then Bayer's loss is (adds it up on her fingers...carry one...add number I first thought of...) is zero dollars, correct? Expected profit nothing, actual profit nothing* = no loss. 

But it's essentially theft.  :( 

Hope the $7.6 million a year goes a little way to cheering Dekkers up, the poor lamb.

*Didn't want to clutter the sarcasm with facts, but since it's a 'licence", Bayer probably gets some of the Indian drug company's profits, so they actually get more profit than if they'd continued to ignore India.

In an attempt to stop it vanishing up its own fundament, an interwebs warrior appears

Someone on a message board linked to an article they link-titled "problems with Twitter". Intrigued, I clicked the link and was taken to the New York Times' blog article Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel, written by a Jenna Wortham.

Already haring off after a white rabbit - a message board command to read a blog post about Twitter - I wasn't surprised when the article fell right down the rabbit hole.  Jenna is very sad about Twitter, which has stopped being relevant.
But Twitter isn't really about the most important thing anymore — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago. Twitter seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another. It’s less about drifting down the stream, absorbing what you can while you float, and more about trying to make the flashiest raft to float on, gathering fans and accolades as you go. 
How did this happen?

A blog post about the ephemeral nature of Twitter. It's like the pot calling the kettle black, except it's a bit more like the 2-quart dutch oven calling the 4" omelette pan last year's shade of Monroe Bisque.

I fully expect to see a Usenet post about this blog post about that blog post about Twitter within the next quarter of an hour.

Yes, Usenet, for Jenna continues:
than exhausting. It may be why less public forms of communication — messaging applications like Snapchat, GroupMe, Instagram Direct and even old-fashioned e-mail threads and Google groups — are playing a bigger and bigger role in the most meaningful interactions during my day online.
"Google groups" is Usenet! We're back, assweasels! *

I'm also compelled to add that Jenna also says the following:
Much of that ensues in hilarity.
Written out literally, this means "A lot of that sort of thing then happens in a place called 'Hilarity'".  I'm sure that's not what she means, but she used the word ensues incorrectly. When you have the entire internets to fill, including the apparently recently renascent Usenet, you run out of editors.

*We're back but we're not allowed to use the "b-word" any more as it is "gendered".

Friday, January 24, 2014

The news is very Ballardian these days

The news has been very Ballardian recently.

First, we have the news that Hispaniola, a huge tropical island, is sinking - not under the sea, but into a lake of freshwater that's mysteriously swelling.  The lake in the Dominican Republic (one half of the island of Hispaniola, along with Haiti) is rising and swallowing towns and farms. Dead palms stand in the shallows of Lago Enriquillo which inexorably rises.  It seems like the classic Ballard scenario.

However, despite the mysterious water source, the beaches, the iguanas, the tropical palms and the drowned buildings, it doesn't quite have that J G Ballard swing. The Crystal World was set in a slowly-petrifying jungle; The Day of Creation tracked the source of a mysteriously-appearing African river, but The Drowned World with its carefully watching iguanas was set in a sunken, tropical London.

So, despite that fact that the replacement housing looks fearfully like the concrete blocks that litter atomic atolls in Ballard's fiction, I'll reluctantly scratch that one.

But how about this?

It appears that a cruise liner broke its mooring years ago, and is now afloat on the oceans, threatening to run aground, crewed only by cannibal rats. The Lyubov Orlova, named, in quite a Ballardian fashion, after a film starlet, was being towed to the Dominican Republic (I sense a pattern here) to be broken when it came loose.  Apparently there have been some false alarms before, but currently Ireland is thought to be within the sights of the rat privateers.

Picture from the Guardian article, attributed to Serge Sauvage, FlckrVision

Now if the ship had been filled with English cruise passengers, ranging from upper middle class men luxuriating in balconied staterooms to lower middle class aspirants in windowless below-deck cabins, eventually abandoned by their captain and crew and left to fend for themselves with the cannibal rats, I think that would have made quite a blockbuster latterday Ballard novel.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Flying Dementor banshee-creature prank

As a confirmed killjoy, I generally hate outdoor pranks. But this one had me laughing out loud.

It's a banshee, or a Reaper or a Dementor - made from a skeleton and a cloak carried by a hex copter (apparently they can carry more than a quad copter), flying over a graveyard and totally scaring the joggers.

My main objection to pranking is that it can be mean-minded - playing on someone's instincts to protect a baby or help a person in trouble, and anti-social, in that they teach people to ignore signals that something is not quite right in case the odd thing turns out to be just another TV station pranking up the high street, looking for a fool. In this case, my objection is that I'd probably drop dead of a heart attack if I saw one of these coming after me, but it's so funny when it happens to someone else, I'll forgive them for it.

(via boing boing)

Sunday, January 19, 2014



Go to YouTube, admire its simple layout, type "doge meme" in the search box and marvel at the result!

                                   Such color 

Many sans


You have to admire Google's determination to stay on top of things, even if they are evil. (They made their first move in owning The Internet of Things today.)

Not Bambi Mail

When I first had email at home, I used to get the dreaded email forwards, and they were all of a type - we called them Bambi Mail.

The archetypal Bambi Mail was an email from someone who was both a friend and a woman and was usually composed of short text jokes, mostly about being women (or about other people being men) with a slathering of lawyer jokes. Occasionally you'd get the $250 Red Velvet Cake recipe or some other urban legend, but generally the theme was some version of sisterly solidarity that you could have just by hitting "forward", inputting your entire address book and pressing "enter".

Bambi and her friends presumably wobbled off on their high heels to Facebook a few years ago, because Bambi Mail slowed to a trickle. But the emails kept on coming. Now they come from men - shall we call it Faline Mail? - and are strongly political.

Politics I don't mind, but the urban legends picked up steam along with the Faline Mail. In many cases, the emails are both - jokes and digs at Obama that normal people remember first being said about Clinton or even Bush II, just found billowing in cyberspace, renamed and sent on. Some are just lies, and some obfuscations of various sorts. The one that arrived today is just mind-boggling.

It was subject-lined "No comment necessary" and the sender had helpfully added the text:
Factually it's a great illustration
It is?


Picture of Clint: I hear you spent $678 million on the Obamacare website. Really?
Picture of Obama: That number has been greatly exaggerated by the right wing...
Picture of Clint: Sure it is. So how many citizens is this plan intended to cover?
Picture of Obama: All 315 million in all 57 states.
Picture of Clint: So you're telling me that instead of building this site, you could've just given each of us $2 million?
Picture of empty chair: [No text]

I've been trying to work out if  "$2 million each" is a joke, in the same way that "57 states" is a joke based on Obama once saying he'd visited all 50 states save for one left to go, stopping mid-sentence when he realized he'd only visited the 48 contiguous states, and still had one of those yet to visit - leading him to misspeak and say "I've been in all fifty...seven states? I think one left to go."

But I can't see the joke. I guess math just isn't Prop!Clint's strong point. Whatever, it must have worked on at least one person, as they found it out there on the Webz, packaged it up and sent it to Undisclosed Recipient, which includes me. I hope the others aren't the sort to slip six or seven decimal points or this one could run and run.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

At Last The 1948 Show (1967, DVD)

A week ago, I wrote about Amazon's sale of a two-DVD set of Do Not Adjust Your Set.  It's still on sale (also at Amazon.co.uk) and so is the companion two-DVD set of At Last the 1948 Show.  After watching DNAYS, I immediately ordered ALT1948S.

These two sets are complementary, in that one has half of Monty Python on the team, and the other one has the other half.  ALT1948S was conceived by David Frost, who approached John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor with the idea for a comedy show. They suggested Marty Feldman be involved and the show went ahead. It debuted in 1967 (the year 1948 has nothing to do with it), and distributed by Rediffusion. Since my parents wouldn't let me watch any of the ITV programming (it was BBC all the way), I didn't get to see it. (In fact, it may never even have shown in Yorkshire - not all regional programming was syndicated all over Britain.)

As I wrote earlier, DNAYS is a children's program, filled with puns that land with a mighty thud, and kid-friendly physical slapstick of the fall-over-a-lot variety (David Jason was particularly good at the falling-over comedy), accompanied by the cartoony adventures of Captain Fantastic and his nemesis, a woman with a handbag.  The studio audience is audibly made up of schoolboys. In contrast, ALT1948S is a grown-up comedy, filled with absurdity and surreal over-the-top banter that starts with a premise, digs into it as assiduously as possible for three to five minutes, and then is reeled back in by a punchline, a line of dialogue that restates or refutes the original premise - and that's how you know the skit is over.

As an example, one skit is set in a library. A thief runs in (with police in audible pursuit outside) and is told to "Shhh!" by the library patrons. The police arrive and are told to shush; various cops and robbers things happen silently (or are told to shush) until eventually the thief shrieks,


And thus it ends.

Although the humor is as well-developed as Monty Python, it's that final hard-stop on each sketch that sets it apart from MP's interconnected zaniness.

As an example, the initial Four Yorkshiremen sketch is in this set, and it's fully developed. Initially it's odd to see Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman as two of the Yorkshiremen, but the steadily-building humblebrag banter is just as spit-take inducing as the later Python forays.

Both DNAYS and ALT1948S have strong female leads, unlike either The Goodies or Monty Python. ALT1948S has Aimi MacDonald as theirs. Dressed in fur stoles and ballgowns covered with thousands of hand-sewn sequins whose dazzle completely overwhelmed the TV camera tubes of the day, Aimi came on between sketches to tell us how great she was. The first few times were obviously a parody of something or other that went on in those days, but by the fifteenth or twentieth time it got a bit grating. Suddenly, near the end of the series, she pulled out all the stops and performed the "Alas, poor Yorick" soliloquy from Hamlet while tap-dancing. (Similarly, Tim Brooke-Taylor pulled off a chartered-accountant-at-a-hippy-happening solo spot that kills.)

Apart from Aimi's sequins, it hasn't aged badly. There's a bit where a newsreader is unable to continue a piece about President Tito when a passing plot-device steals his notes, and we're not surprised as we don't remember anything about Tito either, and a couple of references to then-current events, but in general it's Monty Python zaniness just waiting for Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones to come on over from Do Not Adjust Your Set and fulfill their true destiny.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Yellowbeard (DVD) 1983

Look at this list of actors.

Graham Chapman, Peter Boyle, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Eric Idle, Madeline Kahn, James Mason, John Cleese, Spike Milligan, Nigel Planer, Susannah York, Beryl Reid.

Just look at them. 

With half of the Young Frankenstein crew, the Pythons and Cheech and Chong in there, it has to be hilarious, right? 

Well, it's got all the right actors but it didn't get the right script. The play-offs between American humor trying to be edgy and sheer British silliness doesn't really work, and the plot (loosely based on Treasure Island) is a bit thin. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to offset the stony-faced "is that it?" reactions to some of the worst jokes. 

Yellowbeard is an evil pirate who has built a huge treasure trove from much killing and raping. (There are a lot of rape jokes in this movie, mostly of women being dragged off into bushes with sound effects of the, "No no...no...hee hee hah hah...oooh!" variety. This may have been funny in about 1962, but by the time it came out in 1983, never mind thirty years later, it's a bit wearing.) The powers that be manage to put Yellowbeard in jail for tax evasion but fail to find his treasure. 

His original treasure map has been destroyed to put the Crown off the scent, but his unknown son, the awesomely unfunny and flat-of-affect Martin Hewitt, bears a copy of the map as a tattoo on his scalp. The Crown lengthens Yellowbeard's sentence by 140 years to force him to break out of jail, which he does, and then they tail him hoping he will lead them to the trove. He collects his son and sets off. 

In a parallel plot, two gold-rich Spaniards, Cheech and Chong, have set themselves up as a priestly elite on the South American island that holds Yellowbeard's treasure. (The set designers have done a fabulous job of kitting their palace out as Mayan, with a reproduction of the Bonampak murals on one wall which is very much worth watching out for.)

The agents of the Crown, Cheech and Chong, Yellowbeard's crew and the impressed noble Lord Lambourn (Peter Cook) race for the treasure, buckle their swashes and a certain amount of hilarity ensues. 

Given that the writing is a bit thin, the things that stand out in the movie are the actors who work with their body rather than their lines. John Cleese, as Blind Pew, a man who does not let a little disability get in the way of being the most awesome dude in the room, is laugh-out-loud funny. Peter Cook, who could recite a recipe for Orange Julius and induce fits of laughter, is naturally funny here. (Watch out for him giving the 'three-farthings' urchin her comeuppance.) Marty Feldman merely has to look at his interlocutor with one or both of his eyes and you're already laughing. 

And there's an uncredited cameo by David Bowie - blink and you'll miss it!

It's currently available from Netflix. It used to be available on YouTube but not any longer, so ... edited post. 

Tolkien, in his own words (and the words of some toffs) - video

Below is a Tolkien documentary from 1968 (via Dangerous Minds). The DM blog concentrated on how wonderful it is that it features the man himself, but what I find fascinating is the pure, full-on 1968 BBC experience. Radiophonic workshop noises, check. Money to pay for a lingering shot from a helicopter, check. (Is that a disestablishing shot?) Focus on pretty proto-hippy girl wittering, a la One-plus_One's Eve Democracy, check.

And of course, the toffs. The whole thing is focused on toffs, from the toff Merton College/Hogwarts Housemaster, to the unbelievably privileged Oxford boys, to Tolkien himself. One of the toff boys actually calls the Hobbits "boojwah" (bourgeois) as if the boy was reciting dialogue from some English don novel of the time. Apparently one of the giveaway traits of the bourgeois is...enjoying food.

Anyone who has difficulty understanding the importance of class in England could stand to watch this piece. However, they would first need to know how to distinguish the accents used in the documentary.

Here's a handy primer - if class accents are read from top to bottom, with the Queen at the top. 95% of accents are not found in the programme.

Incredibly, in the second part at 1:06 in, an early incarnation of Dave Spart comes on to tell us why believing in Hobbiton is a distraction from the class struggle. "Dave Spart" is the name Private Eye gives to its parodies of communist agitators. It's funny to see one captured in the wild like this.

If you're not familiar with British accents, have a listen to Dave Spart and see where you think he is on the chart.

Answer: Dave Spart is also in the top strata with the Oxford boys. Luckily, the BBC has changed a lot since this doc. Nowadays you can't switch it on without hearing a regional or original working class accent. But back then, hoo boy. (As they don't say in England.)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last The 1948 Show (DVD)

Both Amazon and Amazon.co.uk have two gems on sale at the moment.

At Last The 1948 Show, is described thusly:
Just two series were made before it became no more and it became a revolution that was destined to change the face of TV comedy forever… 'At Last The 1948 Show' (actually broadcast in 1967). Bursting onto the nation's small screens in an explosion of unrelated and often surreal sketches, its main perpetrators were John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor and what 'At Last The 1948 Show' began the inestimable Monty Python would one day finish in mind-blowing style.... This 2 DVD set features the recently rediscovered episodes of the classic 'At Last The 1948 Show' series.
And Do Not Adjust Your Set, described as: 
Monty Python completists will especially appreciate Do Not Adjust Your Set, a precursor to Monty Python's Flying Circus starring Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle, along with fellow writer-performers David Jason and Denise Coffey. Ostensibly a children's show, Do Not Adjust Your Set also includes the then-future Python Terry Gilliam lurking off-camera as an occasional animator, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with Neil Innes, an important collaborator on several Idle projects that lay ahead. A freewheeling sketch show from the late 1960s, originally broadcast on the Rediffusion network before switching to Thames Television, it's impossible not to see Do Not Adjust Your Set as a blueprint forFlying Circus. The two hours' worth of material in this DVD set includes early versions of Palin's familiar role as an incompetent shopkeeper, in one instance selling shoe polish to a man who asks for bananas. The entire cast stars in a vignette about a classical music quartet whose instruments produce the sounds of an auto accident and an air raid. Terry Jones plays an insurance agent who wrecks Palin's house, and Idle essays his soon-to-be signature performance as a pleasant-sounding, BBC news reader spouting surreal headlines. This is a gold mine of Pythonesque comedy in an embryonic state, plus the Bonzo Dog Band performing "Death Cab for Cutie." --Tom Keogh
I did not see ALT1948S when it was broadcast, and only know of it from YouTube clips, and now...it's on order.  DNAYS is another matter. A children's show first broadcast (by Rediffusion, a name from the history books!) in 1969, it was a firm favorite of after-school TV watchers, eventually picking up a sizeable adult following. There are many Brits who remember the adventures of the hopeless Captain Fantastic with great fondness, and of course there are even more who cherish the memory of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band playing more-or-less live on every episode.  The Bonzos also played almost all the extras in the scenes and provided musical interludes and rude noises as appropriate to the sketches. 

Made on a shoestring - edits were strictly not allowed, as it meant actually cutting out sections of magnetic tape, which reduced the value of the reel - the oh-let's-just-go-with-that-take charm is off the charts. As an adult - and 40 years later - it's possible to guess every punchline and groan at every single dreadful pun but it's still marvellous. 

These two 2-DVD sets are currently less than $10 each, with free shipping for Amazon Prime customers. Excellent trips down memory lane for some of us, and for the newcomers a chance to see the Pythons, hear the Bonzos and attempt to puzzle out what contemporary events and personalities are being spoofed. Free bonus: The title "Do Not Adjust Your Set" is the wording from the error card that appeared on viewers' screens if a fault in the picture was generated at the broadcaster's end. This saved you from getting up and thumping your set a good one, or adjusting the dreaded horizontal hold and vertical hold in an attempt to stabilize the picture. 

Eric Idle subs for Neil Innes in "Love is a Cylindrical Piano". Eric also wears the coolest suits in the show.

Edit: Follow up post on At Last the 1948 show is here


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