Friday, June 22, 2012

Stay tuned

Believe it or not, Grad Student Madness may well have a new home in the near future. Stay tuned for details, whoever you are...


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Today in French

Bouquiner: (n) To hunt after or collect old books; (informal) to read.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

1950s comedy

(I just noticed he's carrying prison clothes, which makes the joke a bit more clear.)


Note on The Day After

In November, 1983, the ABC network aired the television movie The Day After, depicting the effects of a nuclear war on the Midwestern United States. Viewed by an estimated 100 million people, the film was considered deeply affecting, not to mention horrifying, and may have inspired President Reagan to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Reykjavik three years later. Prior to the broadcast, ABC distributed half a million viewer’s guides and classrooms around the country worked to help traumatized children deal with their feelings of terror afterwards. (Here is the attack sequence.)

I was a nine-year-old boy, however. So my views on nuclear war were probably not as somber as they should have been. Me and my friends had been raised on a steady diet of post-apocalyptic action movies in the Mad Max mold, and our understanding of the Russians was that, after they bombed and invaded the country, we would be forced to fight them to the death using our cunning, preadolescent physical prowess, and lawn darts. Like all little boys, we believed in the Peter Pan myth: being removed from civilization would set the stage for untold adventures. The nuclear bomb would be the world’s loudest school bell.

Looking back, I’m not remotely ashamed that we manipulated other people’s apocalyptic nightmares. There’s something egotistical about all apocalypse scenarios, appealing as they do to our resentment towards the existing reality and our deeply subconscious feeling that it’s a bit unfair and unimaginable that the world should outlast us, carrying on after our death. The existentialists understood the truth- every death is the end of a created world. The apocalypse is a fantasy that our death will be epic and transfiguring and deeply meaningful; all of us will die alone and the apocalypse is a fantasy of dying together. Nine-year-old boys have no interest in such things, busy as they are with being alive.

(X-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen)


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Spam Wars 2012

Believe it or not, I think I've killed most of the spam that has sprouted here over the last year or so. One post in particular had an inexplicable 300+ comments of Chinese spam. Man this was exhausting work, but I do want that "no spam shall live" line to be honest.


Let's all go Insane at the Movies

Over at Forbes, E.D. Kain shares Roger Ebert’s suggestions as to why movie theatregoing is declining. As avid cinephiles, one might expect me and the missus to go to the movies more frequently, and yet our attempts to do so this holiday season reminded us once again that, for adults, moviegoing is not all beer and skittles.

Here follows a chronicle of our holiday moviegoing crusades: the first was a children’s movie we saw with our friend and her kids. Unfortunately, the multiplex went suddenly and unexpectedly “offline” that evening, forcing us to pay cash; also, me to frantically scour the neighboring mall for an ATM machine and dash back to the ticket line, which snaked around the block as the pitiable teen cashier had to write out “tickets” for everyone paying. Luckily, your heroic narrator arrived ridiculously early and saved the day for the others, allowing us to make our way to the theatre for a pleasant evening of children crying and kicking our seats like they were filled with candy and needed only to be cracked open to spill their delicious sweets.

Undaunted, our hero returned a week later for a friend’s birthday outing. We were all fairly sauced after a brewery tour, which made the blaring children comfortably tolerable as we waited for the theatre staff to figure out how to get the movie to project- a puzzler that lasted until well over an hour after the movie was scheduled to begin. In apology, the theatre manager gave everyone free passes to a multiplex film of their choice. And lo, the second crusade ended in a draw.

The next week, the knight and his lady returned for a third time to cash in that free pass. Alas, we were thwarted by an officious 16 year old martinet who insisted we return to the meandering box office line to verify that my free movie pass was authentic. The line delayed us further and when we got to the front we opted against attending the movie (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) for which we were now thirty minutes late or any of the other films at the multiplex, all of which were made for and aimed at teenage boys and their girlfriends, perhaps explaining the self-importance of the teen usher. A bit sauced this night as well (she drove) I blared to the manager, “That kid should be fired!”, which my wife has laughed about for days since because I am usually a mild milquetoast. The third crusade ending in failure, thus ends the chronicles of pain and struggle.

Today, they'd be considered starving.
Roger Ebert speaks for us. Living in the boonies, our theatre choices are limited to multiplexes, “cineplexes”, and sataniplexes. At some point, theatre owners opted to put all of their eggs in the basket reserved for teenage males of middling intelligence and bulimics who prefer to binge on elephantine popcorn tubs, since these groups buy the mostest, and lo they arrived in hordes with cell phones blazing in the night, ready to chat loudly throughout even the most bombastic and insipid Hollywood product. Film distributors, meanwhile, charge so dearly for distribution rights that theatre owners are probably shrewd in not exhibiting too many films that would be only popular with groups as inconsequential as adults or women. Finally, they have mutually discovered that teens will pay twice as much to see one dimensional plots in three dimensions. The business model is apparently to focus all of their attention on demographic groups with the largest market share and the rest of the consumers can go hang it. In the homogeneoplex, the kiddie matinee reigns supreme.

So why are huge swaths of the filmgoing public staying home and watching a lot more movies on Netflix than are being viewed in the theatres? Goodness me, I couldn’t say!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two types

A woman at the bar said to me last night: "There are two kinds of people in this town: the ones who will talk about you and the ones who will talk to you." It's a perfect description of the small town where we live. Also, it's a pretty good description of most places.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

How would you historicize sexual repression?

This question came to mind recently when discussing the subject with a friend who is trying to reduce her feelings of shame around sex and sexuality. I’d discussed similar topics with other friends recently; it probably says something that they were all females; and I’ve gotten the feeling that it’s not at all abnormal. In fact, there seems to be a consistent discourse of sexual repression running as a thread throughout history. The common theme seems to be that sex is healthy, even good, but only in small doses. A high sex drive is associated with some sort of intemperance or selfishness. There is something offensive or repulsive about a female voluptuary. The problem is that “too much” lust is roughly the normal level for human beings.

As a history geek, I wonder how you would historicize what likely amounts to an oral discourse. There are manuals on sex from the Renaissance that warn about overindulging. Rudolph M. Bell wrote a delightful study of these manuals, where we learn that sexual “overindulgence” can lead to: “headaches, nervousness, chest pains, kidney problems, backaches and sore legs; facial paleness ensues, along with rapid aging and even death”. If that wasn’t bad enough, it “damages the eyes and all of the five senses” and causes, “loss of memory, tremors, aches in the extremities, especially the legs, along with kidney and bladder problems,” “causes loss of appetite, shortens life span, destroys natural virtue, makes bones brittle, and brings on senility”. Unfortunately, the manuals agreed that married people should be having sex regularly and did not actually specify how much was too much. Apparently, you’d know by the facial paleness.

I’ve never met anyone who worried about an early death, but the fear of sexual overindulgence still seems to be common. There’s something irresponsible and self-indulgent about non-procreative sex that rubs against our need to be “productive” at all times. I’ve had female partners ask me if I thought they were “abnormal” in their sexual desires. The answer was always no.

But the official story, if you were to judge by our books, movies, and marriage manuals, is that we’re none of us sexually timid. This is one area in which I agree with the college chastity movement: the mass media gives the impression that every young person is indulging in largely meaningless sexual experiences with whoever comes along (not to say that meaningless sex isn’t its own form of repression). You watch these programs especially and nobody ever seems to suffer from sexual hang-ups or insecurities and you would have the impression that ours is an age of Sex and the City style freedom, as opposed to one of the most fearful, conservative, and repressed cultural eras since the 1950s.

People talk about the “pornification” of society with widespread access to hardcore pornography on computers. And yet, this is not sexual behaviour, which requires the interaction of two people. Logging on and jacking off is a salve for sexual repression that makes it easier to endure. It’s not an indication of sexual freedom; much the opposite. What seems to have happened is that sexual behaviour was once private and scorned in public, leaving a nice, neat historical record behind; now, it’s much the opposite: sexual behaviour of all sorts is publically celebrated and repression is something shameful and private. In other words, the “historical record” should be expected to lie.


I'm back

In the sense of living with my wife since the late summer and doing well at that. Probably going to post here a bit more frequently than every half-year too. Maybe back to normal, whatever that might mean.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Record Store Day

As someone who spends, and has always spent, a great deal of time in record stores, I have not been able to avoid hearing about the fast approaching “death of the record store” after a long and heroic battle with the Internet. There are now documentaries on the subject and an international Record Store Day to which several musicians and record labels lent their support. Nevertheless, in much of what is said or written on the subject, it is taken as sadly apparent that these shops are doomed if we just take current consumption patterns and project them into the future. Young people can buy music online, and that’s where they live now, so they will keep doing so into the future, which by the way will be exactly like today, only more so.

This argument becomes somewhat contradictory when it comes packaged in laments about the vanishing record store: to wit, record stores are doomed because music can be purchased easily elsewhere; but record stores, it is argued, offer consumers many benefits and meet many needs aside from mere music distribution. So, either future generations will lack those needs for no clear reason, or simply not recognize an obvious resource for meeting them. This shift in consciousness will either be universal or so widespread as to make the stores untenable and quixotic. It’s worth looking at the needs that record stores are supposed to meet.

The first such need is social: record store devotees describe the convivial pleasures of hanging out in record shops talking about music. Here we should note they’re clearly talking about independent record stores since the mall chain stores tend to actively discourage consumers from hanging out. They’re also oddly overlooking music related message boards where people can discuss music for hours. Perhaps though they are touching on the very different nature of face-to-face socializing from what we do here online- its off the cuff spontaneity, awkward pauses, body language, moments of boredom, funny off-hand comments, flirtations, and natural brainstorms. Possibly, the underlying fear is that socializing itself will die out. However, it seems highly unlikely that man will cease to be the social animal in the future; and certainly young people seem not to have lost any taste for hanging out together.

A secondary concern is that there is some sort of decline in music fandom going on. Record stores serve as a meeting place for the sorts of music fans that obsess over their favorite bands with a devotion bordering on cultishness. The era of groupies, magazines like Rock Scene, Deadheads and the like, and music appreciation as a lifestyle might be ending. And maybe the music just doesn’t demand that sort of devotion now. For all of the industry hype about artists like Lady Gaga and Kanye West as pivotal and their albums as epochal, it’s hard to imagine any of those albums as really being the Metaphysical Graffiti, Sgt Pepper’s, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or, hell, even the Rocket to Russia or Appetite for Destruction of 2011. Bands and labels now think primarily in terms of singles instead of albums, a trend reflecting how music is bought online, but strangely bringing us back to a 1950s style of marketing music. What this means is that many, if not most music fans are content to pick out those great songs if the band is not concerned with making a great album. Bands like the White Stripes recorded some excellent songs, but never really made a great album without filler. The people who bought only those songs were probably right.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a lame game among music snobs to ask what was the last great album. Nevermind? OK Computer? Back to Black? It’s a bit of a meaningless exercise, especially since we could probably think of a great album from the last few years; but certainly the old process of recording that reached its nadir in the 14 years and over $13 million to finish Chinese Democracy will most likely never be repeated. A scenario like Brian Wilson going mad trying to perfect Smile is one it’s hard to imagine anyone actually wanting to repeat, but the desire to create a monumental and lasting work of art in a recording studio is one that nobody has the time or money to peruse anymore. It is worth asking if the quality of pop music hasn’t declined in general and whether musicianship hasn’t been replaced in many cases with slick overproduction. But, contrary to the assumption, there still are plenty of music fanatics left and they would likely disagree with the question.

Finally, it’s often suggested that record stores offer the benefit of expertise, which might be devalued in the age of Wikipedia. A good record store clerk can point you in the direction of great music you’ve never heard of and away from junk. Expertise is increasingly taken as “elitist” (along with many other things that threaten an individual’s inflated sense of self-importance). “Why should anyone tell me what to like?” Regardless, wide, repeated, thoughtful, and extensive exposure to any art form will cultivate expertise over time. A music fan of thirty years will have better informed tastes than a newcomer, even if their tastes might lack the freshness of the newcomer. What is elitist is instead how they express those tastes. While the “stuck up record clerk” is nowhere near as widespread as rumored, I’ve certainly met some music fans who dismissed me as a “poseur” for expressing enthusiasm about the same music I’ve been listening to enthusiastically for the last twenty-two years. With so many independent record stores closing though one would imagine that store owners would discourage such behavior. (Also, I’ve yet to meet an aloof record clerk who didn’t brighten when I either expressed enthusiasm about the music they were playing or just asked if they had anything by the Pretty Things.) Besides, the flip side of the surly record store snob is the cute store clerk who gushes about the record you’re thinking of picking up that she just loves. Little can top that.

What seems more likely to happen than a total extinction of record stores is an end to the widespread local stores but plenty of stores surviving in more dispersed locations as specialty shops; more a winnowing down than the shopocalypse. I’m also curious to see if independent shops will start selling books, music, magazines, and DVD rentals in the same location. A friend’s weird little DVD rental place has actually morphed into a movie rental/antiques/records/books/fine hats store! Buying music online is certainly convenient and many of the benefits of hanging out in a record store can be obtained elsewhere. But a point I’ve not heard made yet is that a world in which music (not to mention movies and books) could only be purchased online would be briefly novel and eventually very boring. It’s not that a good number of half-assed local record shops won’t close, but the shopocalypse argument rests heavily on the idea that whatever a lot of people are doing right now is what they’ll all be doing in the future and nothing else. Record stores will thus go the way of burlesque dancing, roller derby, and records themselves, all of which vanished as expected and no longer exist. As someone who has been buying vinyl records for about twenty-six years, and had people much hipper than me tell me for twenty-six years that nobody would be manufacturing records by the following year, I’m skeptical.

Or, perhaps, human beings, particularly the young ones, will continue to seek out novelty, variety, new experiences, and kicks- what leads young people to music in the first place. You never can predict what teenagers and music fans will do next year- Rolling Stone has consistently embarrassed itself by trying to make such predictions. For all we know the next generation might even go so far as to “tune out” from the internet- just to piss off their parents!