Saturday, July 30, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Judas Tree"

(Be forewarned. Parentheses lie ahead.)

Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, is thought in folklore to be the kind of tree that Judas hanged himself after betraying Christ. While a number of linguists see this is a folk etymology based on a French phrase meaning "tree of Judea" the legend persists, not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Whether or not Judas Iscariot hanged himself from this tree, or any tree, or in fact was really the betrayer of Jesus, the name has a certain Biblical resonance, and there's a slight aura of Christian allegory to this episode. In that it feels like an Ellery Queen novel, some of which took on an allegorical role after Manfred B. Lee's conversion from Judaism to Episcopal Christianity.

(Jonathan Creek has also taken a title from the Judas tree.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lonely hearts

It's weird how, once you start noticing it, there are banner ads all over the web for what are basically mail order bride businesses. Or, you know, something like that. Never know what site will show you an ad saying "Single girls from _____ are waiting to hear from you." Russia and Japan seem pretty popular, but I'm sure I've seen others.

Half of me is concerned there might be human trafficking involved. The other half is convinced it's just a way to get your credit information. But anyway, that's two reasons not to call.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

European vacation

It's not often that I'll do a book post on this blog with a judgment of "don't read it." And I'm not exactly doing that here. But...

The late German novelist W. G. Sebald has a high reputation as a humanist and a somewhat avant-garde author. His way of writing is his own, certainly. His books, often based on fact, tend to read like journal entries or New Journalism, with generous insertion of photos. I've read at least one, The Rings of Saturn before, and if it wasn't entirely my cup of tea it left me open to reading more of the author.

Austerlitz is his last novel and widely considered his masterpiece. It concerns an old German recounting his youth, when he was sent to live as a boy in Wales and given a new name. After his school days and discovery that he is really Jacques Austerlitz... To be honest I kind of lost track. There seems to be some tie to the Holocaust. Now if the Shoah rears its head in a book you read, or a movie you watch, you probably brace yourself for something good and depressing. But Austerlitz is too impenetrable and frankly too boring to depress.

Part of the problem for me is the formatting. There are no chapters or text breaks, which Sebald shares in common with later works by William Gaddis. But there are very few paragraphs either, and at least one sentence that goes on for more than five pages. If Sebald knew how people read, he bravely and perhaps foolishly set his work against it. Further frustrating me is the narrator, who isn't Austerlitz but meets him several times across European locations. He disappears effectively through most of the book, serving no purpose but to pepper the narrative with "Austerlitz said" and similar passages. Which don't help.

The upshot here isn't that Sebald was a bad writer. But while I like to consider myself a curious reader who can put up with and even delight in a lot of off-center approaches, it turns out I do have my limits.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

'S the humidity AND the heat

In a couple of months it will be September. I'll be, in all likelihood, sleeping under the covers again. That will be an interesting change.

Friday, July 22, 2016

There's no business like business

I watched Executive Suite tonight. It's got a reputation, and was somewhat honored when it came out back in 1954. This is merited in some ways. In other ways it dates badly.

The plot is somewhat internecine but at heart comes down to this: An industrialist named Avery Bullard dies suddenly on the street. His death sets off jockeying and wheedling for who will take his place at the furniture company he runs. One candidate is a bean counter who only sees the company as a way to return maximum profits to the shareholders. There's another, more idealistic side, finally settling on the young VP of manufacturing.

The movie is directed by Robert Wise, who'd go on to film the iconic-yet-strange musical West Side Story and honor Shirley Jackson's novel in The Haunting. To his credit, he makes some bold choices. The film gets along without a musical score, the opening and closing credits accompanied only by a tolling bell. Bullard's death is an eyecatcher too, with a bit player whose face is never seen expiring as he hails a taxi.

It's well cast, too, with William Holden doing what he can with the idealist, Frederic March sinking his teeth into the cold controller, and Walter Pidgeon (whom will eventually show up in another post of mine) giving fine support as an affable treasurer. Shelley Winters is good too as the unhappy mistress of an executive who's being used. (Shelley was still in her sex symbol phase when this was made.)

Women in general don't get to do much in this film, though. It's basically a soap opera, so you expect the actresses to have meaty roles. But it's about business, so women only get to be wives and lovers and in a few cases secretaries.

Then there's the business milieu itself. The company deals in manufacturing, and Holden's character wants to invest in better methods. At one point a foreman rails against the shoddiness of the product they put out now, saying that Bullard would have broken the chairs and desks, declaring them not good enough. Holden gives a similarly kinetic performance in the boardroom when the final vote is about to be taken. So he wins, and March the professional miser loses.

Doesn't matter. In a few decades the company will still be outsourcing production to China.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Funny because it's true

We got onto the subject of Neil Innes a while ago, and that set me thinking again tonight, which led to this. Not sure what was up with the stilts - maybe just one of those random post-Python things - but this is vintage.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Creature comforts

gli animali perduti di Albertus Seba - the lost animals of Albertus Seba from A.G.E Trio on Vimeo.

Albertus Seba was a pioneering Dutch zoologist and engraver, which might give you some context. The audio helps draw me in too.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Wary Witness"

Ellery Queen was created during the Interbellum wave of classical detective fiction. He was a gifted amateur, much in the vein of Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, the latter bowing in 1929 like he did. (Christie's Hercule Poirot, by comparison, was an ex-cop.) He could be called the American equivalent of a British gentleman detective, although his father might come from a working class background. In any case he has his roots in the Golden Age. Murder mysteries of that era were artificial in construction and ultimately optimistic. More often than not the victim was horrible enough so that their death wouldn't strike the reader as a great loss. More often than not the culprit could be painted as someone deserving of their ultimate fate: death, lifetime imprisonment, or in special cases institutionalization. Most importantly, the hero could solve the crime by observing and thinking, and thus assure no one else would get hurt.

After the war, darker and tougher crime fiction became more prevalent, in authors as diverse as William P. McGivern and Graham Greene. The motion picture industry quickly got on board, leading to the rise of what French critics soon labeled film noir. While noir movies sometimes had happy endings, they had a tendency to imply a malign universe.

Friday, July 15, 2016


A couple of minutes ago I was sitting here looking at something on the computer and some kind of beetle made contact with the surface in front of me. I took its sudden existence as an aggressive act and it turned out not to be long for this world. I consider myself a fairly peaceful person, but might have some problems being a Jainist.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Speaking role

The title character of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge has a pet raven that repeats what he just said. Given that he's an easily led doofus, this isn't always a good thing. But it's a cool idea. And one based on real life.

I like the idea of a bird that's so well suited to messing with our heads. ("Where did that come from? Who's throwing their voice?")

Monday, July 11, 2016

As I wazzzzz saying...

The other night I said something to wake myself up. To my knowledge sleep-talking a.k.a. somniloquy isn't something I do very often. Not necessarily something I would want to have happen every night, but it wasn't an unpleasant experience. It's the sort of thing that happens in relatively shallow NREM sleep.

The statement I woke myself up with is, "Heh, true." Which sounds kind of Homer Simpson-ish to my own ears.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer"

The 1960s were when spies went from being dangerous and glamorous in a kind of grubby way to being fantastic and kicky. The subgenre is sometimes called spy-fi, as it featured gadgets and schemes borrowed from science fiction. Agents wore the latest threads, drove the fastest cars, enjoyed too many partners to keep all their names straight. If the straight business world offered money and toys and the counterculture - at least in the crude news magazine view - offered the chance to break free of convention - spying in pop culture was the best of both worlds.

Movies were a leading source of the fantasy: James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Michael Caine's more relatable Harry Palmer. In the comic strips - and I do mean strips - you had Peter O'Donnell's ironically named Modesty Blaise. Jim Steranko wrote and drew the kinetic Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics. And of course there was TV. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a hit on American TV, although it was best in its relatively austere black and white episodes. The Avengers was more comfortable with the style, adding several layers of British eccentricity. And The Prisoner, a short-lived but indelible maybe-sequel to Patrick McGoohan's earlier series Danger Man added dystopian social commentary.

Friday, July 8, 2016


Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
Recent cases like Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile - fatal police shootings in which the victim was non-violent or out and out law-abiding - are horrific in themselves. There's probably ripple effects beyond that. Psychological effects. The actual odds of being in a violent confrontation with police may be low, statistically. But there's no way for some Americans to assure they won't be singled out. And then it's out of their hands. It's not a healthy situation, not for anyone.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


How hot is it tonight? Enough to make the air kind of swampy. The heat, though, has the beneficial side effect of making you notice and appreciate the little breezes that relieve it. Sharpens perception of certain things.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Buggin' out

The last couple of days have seen some alarming moth action. I've read about gypsy moth caterpillars denuding the forests in the region, mostly Massachusetts. This may be the payoff. I did notice it was a little better today than yesterday.

I've always liked birds, but this is one way to get to live them. Because not all birds are insectivores, but enough of them are so that it's a relief to see them flying low.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The tail of the snake

Rutland Weekend Television is an odd duck. Eric Idle was given two seasons to produce it after Monty Python's Flying Circus ended. While that show was on its way to becoming an international hit - already having a following in Britain - this was an even smaller scale operation. Each season had only six or seven episodes, while Python had always gotten thirteen, except for the Cleeseless final season. And even the smaller order was underbudgeted, meaning limited shooting locations, no eye-catching animated bumpers, etc.

Idle made a distinctive go of it anyway, turning the liabilities into assets. This is a show about an impoverished light entertainment program, and is also that very thing in real life. It's a different kind of cast, too, dominated by older character actors, but with Gwen Taylor given a fairly large, non-eye candy part. The "world's wittiest man" above is The Bonzos' Neil Innes, who's something.