Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Month That Was - July 2011

The Month That Was - July 2011: So the summer peak has passed. It has been the hottest July on record for this area, but there is no denying the growing shortness of daylight. For this month, let me tell you about what I am not going to tell you about.

I am not going to write about the long weekend I took in Rehoboth Beach, DE. In terms of activities it was little different than the trip I took there back in February (apart from a somewhat disastrous 5K run with an overarching Penn State influence). I am not going to do any book reviews. I have been reading, of course. Specifically: It's All Greek to Me by Charlotte HIggins, Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, Driving Like Crazy by P.J. O'Rourke, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Playback by Raymond Chandler. I will drench you with comments on these and others in the near future, but I have been putting too many book reviews up so -- a break from that this month. I am not going to talk about my writing project since I left it in percolation mode (that means I ignored it) all month.

Most importantly, I am not going to talk about my lawn.

[TV] Comedies Tonight
[Tech] Phone Fristration
[House and Home] Critter Wars
[Good Links] Premium Clickage

[TV] Comedies Tonight

Comedies Tonight: Consider Seinfeld the mold-busting, outside-the-box, ur-comedy. Here's where some recent comedies exist in relation to it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia -- Seinfeld, if it was populated by degenerate douchebags. It's many years into its run and is getting a little long in the tooth, but at its best it's a good as obnoxious cretin comedy can be. Danny DeVito remains one of the most unfairly unheralded comic actors in history.

Workaholics-- Seinfeld, if it was populated by pathetic weenies dimwits. Or maybe it's more like The Office if all the characters were given lobotomies. Or maybe it's just a serialized combination of The Jerk and Dumb and Dumber. I gotta bet one or all of those descriptions was use to pitch this show. Is it odd I would find such a show funny? Not really. As with the Always Sunny... guys, the hapless characters make you drop your guard and the timing, with a certain ad-libbed feel to it, is good for drop dead guffaws.

Wilfred -- Kind of an anti-Seinfeld. The main hobbit from Lord of the Rings is a suicidal depressed nebbish. His hot neighbor has a dog, which everyone else sees as a dog, but he sees as an adult man in dog suit who pretty much takes over his pathetic life and shows him how to live. Essentially, it's Mr. Ed, if Mr. Ed was an id manifestation and a drug fiend. Not Seinfeld at all, just run of the mill episodic sitcom, lots of toilet humor, and a lesson in every episode -- pretty standard stuff except for the dog gimmick. Its value comes from relieving you from ever watching Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo bonging himself silly next to a guy in a dog costume.

Louie -- Seinfeldian in that it stars a stand-up comic and is often bookended by shots of his live performance. I suppose it is also related in that it can be a strange sort of comedy of manners, although from a more personal perspective than a social one. Some people rave about this. I'm not so sure. It's less outright comical and more intriguing. It's like someone took the "it's funny, because it's true" aspect of comedy and went whole hog on the "it's true" end of things. Which makes it almost more of a dramedy. I'm really not sure what to make of Louie. At times cerebral, at times farcical, at times surreal, at times dull. It's rarely flat-out funny, but it is oddly fascinating.

Curb Your Enthusiam -- Seinfeld Part 2. (If you didn't know, Larry David was one of the producers of Seinfeld and the original model for George Castanza.) I can either love or hate this show. When it narrows it's scope and focuses intensely on Larry David's neuroses it gets tedious. This season, I'm loving it. It's getting ensemble-y as Larry's friends kind of take larger roles now that his divorce is done. It makes you realize how much he brought to the table with Seinfeld. In fact, his Curb ensemble has many similarities. He's George, of course. His buddy Jeff is roughly Jerry. His insane "urban" houseguest, Leon, is Kramer. Richard Lewis is, effectively, Elaine. Funkhouser is roughly Putty, in my estimation. Honestly, at its best, Curb... matches Seinfeld and kind of makes you wish they had kept going after all. At its worst it's just a bland exercise in discomfort comedy, but this season has been one of the best.

Archer -- Absolutely hands down the show that makes me laugh the most (which is kind of the main point of comedy). An animated super-spy agency satire. Ungodly comic timing, especially from H. Jon Benjamin as the voice of Sterling Archer. Also, a show that's not afraid to make obscure allusions and count on the audience to get it. For example this exchange:
Cyril: I'm not sure that's technically irony.
Archer: What? This is like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby and named it this exact situation.
Or flat out comedy:
Cyril: Will I get to learn karate?
Archer: Karate? The Dane Cook of martial arts? No, ISIS agents use Krav Maga.
Cyril: Krav..?
Archer: We've got an ex-MOSSAD guy, comes in on Thursday.
Cyril: Neato.
Archer: Yeah, Tuesdays he does a really rigorous spin class.
This will lose everything in the translation, but if you see the scene, you will have witnessed perfect comic timing:
Archer: Shut up, I have to go. And if I find one single dog hair when I get back, I'll rub sand in your dead little eyes.
Woodhouse (Archer's butler): Very good, sir.
Archer: I also need you to go buy sand. I don't know if they grade it... but... ... ... coarse.
That last one may be one of the funniest exchanges in comedy history. I could quote these guys all day. Nothing really to do with Seinfeld, except in the "nobody hugs, nobody learns" sense. Just funny, funny people turned loose on funny, funny scripts.

So what have we learned from this brief survey? Not much. I was looking for a common thread that might define the current fashion of comedy and I don't see one. For quite a while now, traditional gags and sketch comedy have been out of favor. Comedy has had a tendency to be some combination of potty humor (especially in the movies) and situation discomfort. But while the above shows contain elements of those two, there is something more there. Absurd narcissism is big too - there's a fair amount of goings on where the comedy stems from self-absorbed characters debating the meaningless aspects of their own concerns while disaster and drama sweep around them. And of course, irony; we still live in a hyper-ironic age (like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby...). There is nothing earth-shattering about these shows but they are at least creative, some uniquely so. If there is no game-changer here, at least nobody is operating off a formulaic concept. The state of TV comedy is sound and promising.

[Tech] Phaone Frustration

Phone Frustration: T-Mobile has been the bane of my existence. I have always had a weak signal at my office. But over the last few months it has become non-existent, despite the fact that their coverage map indicates that I should have four bar reception. In fact, I get no reception in about a 1 mile radius around my office. Beyond that, it quickly reverts to normal. So essentially that means that unless I go out to lunch, I am incommunicado most of the day. I have delivery jockeys and repair grunts who need to contact me and I can't just give out my cell, because their messages won't reach me until I get home at night.

An online chat with a T-mobile rep over this problem was comically useless. I am not certain the rep actually understood what a cell phone was. I explained that I get no signal. He asked if I was able to make calls. I said no, you can't make calls without a signal. He asked if I have data access. I said no. He asked what happens when I try to go to the web. I said I don't have data access, just calls and text. He asked if I could do something using jargon I never heard of. I said no. I have no signal. I cannot make calls. I cannot send texts. I cannot do anything with my phone. He asked if was able to make any calls at all. At this point I asked whether he understood what I meant when I said I have no signal and whether he had any experience using a cell phone. I am not sure he wasn't just jerking me around. He asked me to read him the id number from the sim chip in my phone. I asked him if it was really necessary for me to do that, which of course it was, to him. So I pulled the sim chip out of my phone and read him the number. He then said I would be contacted within seven days with follow-up. Naturally I never heard from them again.

The more I think about it the more I think he was just yanking my chain for entertainment's sake, waiting for the pink slip to come after the AT&T merger gets approved. I am half-tempted to get back on line and jerk one of their reps around for good measure, but I doubt I'd get the same one.

Here's the problem. I'd go with AT&T or Verizon in a heartbeat, but I pay less than $200 per year in prepaid charges. That would go up significantly with either AT&T or Verizon since every day I use the phone would be another dollar. Sprint, Virgin, etc., all have poor or non-existent coverage in my area so I'd be back in the same boat with them.

I don't know what to do. If I go with and AT&T or Verizon prepaid plan, I'll be paying more than I am now for the same thing. Well, not really the same thing because there won't be a huge portion of the day where I have no signal. But still, if I am going to pay more, shouldn't I just go all the way and get a smartphone? But that'll run me about $80/month for the most basic service with data. Considering I am an extremely light phone user, and will likely be an equally light data user, it just seems outrageous. For a two year contract, plus whatever it costs for the phone itself, that'll be around two grand more than I'm paying now. And didn't I go most of my life without a cell phone? I should be dropping thousands of dollars for one now, when I have a big fat mortgage payment? Two grand would cover some furnishings.

You see the convoluted situation? I have no doubt that it's time to get smart; either a cheap, used iPhone or maybe an Android of some sort. It'll pain me to do it, though.

[House and Home] Critter Wars

Critter Wars: I never signed up to abandon civilization. First it was bears and feral pigs. Now we have rabid bats. The latest one was hornets, and it hit close to home. Specifically right in my back yard.

I had just finished mowing the lawn in 90 degree heat, very proud that I got it done in under 2 hours. So I took the weed-whipper out to hit the edging around the trees and in the backyard next to my deck I look up and see the most terrifyingly enormous hornets nest in recorded history, hanging off a low lying branch. Click here to see what it looked like. A hideous construct. Like a miniature version of a hive from Aliens. Amazingly I had just mowed all around it, my head had to be within a couple of feet of it at some point, and never even noticed it was there. It's a wonder I didn't get swarmed. In fact, that's exactly what the hornet guy told me.

Yeah, I hired a hornet guy. You see I did some internet research on how to rid myself of these critters and the advice boiled down to: 1) Wait until dusk when they are all back in their nest, 2) Wear thick clothing, 3) Wear eye protection, 4) Make sure you spray directly into the entry hole, 5) Wear your running shoes in case you miss. As if that wasn't enough, the Hornet Guy explained to me that when they go on the attack, hornets target the carbon dioxide from your exhales, so they head straight for the mouth and nose.

Nooope. No way. You handle it, Hornet Guy. I'll watch from the living room window.

Hornet Guy followed none of the rules. He did it mid-morning, in a t-shirt and jeans, without any eyewear. He did not, however, miss. He nailed the nest first time with some kind of dust, not a spray. He then backed away to give the beasties a little time to die in peace. Finally he went back and essentially beat the now defunct nest of the tree limb with a stick. And that was that. He got buzzed by a couple a strays that had avoided the dusting, but he didn't get stung.

Less dramatic, but more vexing, is the fact that the "Coral Carpet" perennial ground cover I planted in the front garden is getting nibbled at by some spiteful creature of unknown genus. At first I though it was probably bunnies -- evil bunnies -- but it might be birds. I don't think it's the deer, but I haven't ruled them out. Nice to know that I spent a days worth of time and money planting these things only to have it turn out to be expensive bird food.

Honestly, it's all enough to make a guy yearn for a concrete jungle. Which reminds me, I miss Manhattan.

[Good Links] Premium Clickage

Premium Clickage: Assorted odds and ends, haphazardly gathered over the past couple of months.

  • From 1954 to 1998 the most popular name for boys in the US was Michael, except for one year: 1960 -- the year I was born. The name that that was tops that year? David. Just from my first name, you could take a good guess at my age. Interestingly by 1989 David had dropped from the top five, never to return.
  • I happen to think Roger Ebert is a braying ass who happens to write an excellent movie review, which includes, as a subtalent, blow-coke-out-your-nose put-downs.
  • Detroit just keeps on giving. "[T]he working-class district on the southeast corner of Eight Mile Road and the I-75 Service Drive... made international news last month after FOX 2 publicized its citizens' very loud cry for help. A hand-painted billboard visible from the highway that read: WARNING THIS AREA INFESTED BY CRACKHEADS." Turns out the house is owned by BGE properties, a company in Lathrup Village (used to be a very nice suburban enclave next to Southfield back in the '60s/'70s). The reporter's official queries to BGE were taken by someone calling himself "Broadway Benjamin." No, really. I can't imagine how crackheads got in there.
  • A couple of good articles popped up regarding the current Best Show on TV, Breaking Bad. At Grantland, " Because TV is so simultaneously personal (it exists inside your home) and so utterly universal (it exists inside everyone's home), people care about it with an atypical brand of conversational ferocity...". At The New York Times, "Television is really good at protecting the franchise," [series creator Vince] Gilligan said. "It's good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like 'M*A*S*H.' It's good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended. So I thought, Wouldn't it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?" The show is currently in negotiations over how it's final season will play out. Don't start watching live at the point. Stream it from season one to catch up. It's worth it.
  • Since I skipped out on any book reviews this time, you might read this appreciation, and accurate updating, of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, a wonderful book on the difference class attributes in the U.S. (cultural not political, except tangentially). It first came out in 1983. I think I read it around '85. But I remember much of it to this day, and see its accuracy still. Sharp and witty, fast and fascinating. Should you read it? Yes, unqualified.