Our first television was an Emerson. Black-and-white, of course, modest-sized screen, huge cabinet made of blonde wood. At the age of five and earlier I remember watching Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Space Patrol, Science Fiction Theatre, The Kate Smith Hour (wait, how did that slip in there?), Howdy Doody and many more in our apartment in New York.
I also remember my first car commercial. It was for an Oldsmobile. I remember it not because I particularly cared about the car, but because it had a chrome rocket hood ornament. At that age I knew nothing about cars, but I loved rockets.
As a rough calculation I estimate that in my three-quarters of a century-plus I have been exposed to somewhere between 14 and 16 thousand TV car commercials. Not a single one ever induced me to buy, or even to look at, a particular car.
Am I alone in this? Despite polls and surveys, are all the hundreds of millions spent on marketing that new pickup or SUV nothing more than a mutually reinforcing pipe dream of advertising agencies and automakers?
When you look for a new car or truck, what besides price is important to you? I grew up under the impression that it was reliability, features, warranty, cost of options you wanted, ease and cost of repair and, to a certain extent (the younger you were, the more important this), looks.
For years I tried to reconcile these requirements with what I saw in television car ad. Little about reliability. Maybe a mention of a feature or two. Warranty, never (but becoming more common now). Cost of options? Never mentioned in ads. What the hell did “standard equipment” mean, anyway? Tires and an engine? Ease and cost of repair? Never mentioned. Looks — yes, TV ads focused on that, and with good reason. Everything else I mentioned can be quantified, while appearance is entirely subjective.
Unable to scarcely mention anything besides looks, since the dawn of television advertisers have focused on appearance. Because when you strip away the exterior, most cars and small trucks looked pretty much the same (kind of like humans). That’s not as true since the introduction of EVs, but they’re not all that much different once you get past the propulsion system.
Rectangular body, four wheels, doors. That’s why advertisers have focused on what's really the most subjective aspect of a vehicle. And that’s why auto manufacturers have for decades worked to “change” their models every two or three years while the insides stay largely the same. So much work to convince you that this year’s model is really a “new” car.
But there is only so much you can do to convince potential buyers they are seeing something different. We don’t get a straightforward front, rear, and side view of a car parked on a street. We see it zooming down Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur. Because that’s supposed to impress a potential buyer in Poughkeepsie. We see pickup trucks thundering through primeval forests (while scaring the local wildlife to death) when hardly any buyer is going to actually do that. I’d like to see a commercial featuring a pickup negotiating potholes in Chicago. Wouldn’t that be a more realistic sales video?
Then there are all the overhead shots of cars and pickups zooming down deserted beaches. Huh? First of all, if the beach is that deserted, you wouldn’t want to risk speeding down it for fear of getting stuck. And if it wasn’t deserted, you couldn’t speed for fear of running over beachgoers. Not to mention drawing the attention of every policeman in the vicinity.
Pickup commercials are especially egregious. I’ve seen new, astonishingly spotless pickups in commercials pulling loads of logs, rocks, construction equipment, everything but bogged-down aircraft. How many buyers are actually going to use their trucks for this kind of super-heavy work? And among those that might, how many potential buyers are there? I guess showing a family hauling groceries and maybe a lawnmower would be too realistic.
I’m sure that there are commercials showing cars and trucks driving around on Mars. They’d be just as realistic as what we see every night on television.
My favorites are the current saturation commercials featuring a moronic husband in love with his Toyota. I can’t help but wonder if the idea for these originated in Japan, where quiz shows are notorious for humiliating contestants. Or maybe this is how Japanese car executives see American buyers. I do hope the actor featured in these travesties is well paid. In real life, his ‘wife’ in the commercials could sue for spousal abuse. That, of course, is plainly what sells cars.
I can’t get angry about such absurdities anymore. But I can tell you that I have never, ever met someone who told me that they saw a particular car commercial and that convinced them to go out and buy a certain vehicle. What did persuade them was doing their own research: talking to friends, neighbors, and relatives, and going over a potential purchase in person and in detail.
Boring, I know. Worse, it doesn’t sell advertising.
I am considered a fast writer. But I am not a very fast writer. That encomium is reserved for scribes like Isaac Asimov, who wrote hundreds of books. Ike’s notion of a vacation was to lock himself in a room and writeanother book. He wrote all the time, except when he was appearing at conventions or on television (no podcasts and such back then). And possibly while eating (he may have written while sleeping: I wouldn’t be surprised).
Yet there were successful authors who wrote even faster than Asimov. I’m put in mind of Honore de Balzac. Sleeping during the day and fueling himself during the night with that wondrous new drink, coffee, Balzac churned out something like sixty books while writing with: a quill pen. I can’t even comprehend writing like that. My hand starts to cramp up if I have to sign a couple of checks. Long before Balzac Egyptian scribes not only wrote on papyrus but engraved their work in solid stone (“Hey Hapshut, I did half a wall today!”).
But by contemporary standards I am considered fast. There have been several instances where readers speculated that because of my output, the name Alan Dean Foster had to be a house moniker for several writers. I reckon that’s flattery, of a sort.
That said, I do not write all the time, or fill in non-writing hours with only research. There are domestic matters that need attention, and something else called Real Life. I do find time (too much time, really) to spend on the internet, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite places with you.
Being a news junkie, and because I have to keep up with current events and developments lest I write something that makes me look like an idiot (example: “Looking out the port of the starship, Dave opened his flip phone and ….”). But I don’t run through only the major US news sites. If I want to find out what’s going on in southern Africa, I read the The Mail and Guardian from South Africa. When I tell someone I saw something on the ABC site, I sometimes have to explain that I am referring to the Australian Broadcasting Company website. And I love reading the news from small countries. The Post-Courier from Papua New Guinea, for example, or The Island Times from Palau. You get a completely different perspective on the media and on what is important to people by reading their local news. Usually there are articles on subjects you never see in any American media.
After news sites comes YouTube, which provides entertainment as well as information. I’ve previously discussed how YT videos introduced me to the whole musical subgenre of symphonic metal, as well as the wealth of world music that never seems to make it to the US. In addition to music there are three particular YouTube sites that I’d like to share.
Many hobbyists as well as professionals now employ various software and AI to not only colorize but animate old photographs. The best of them go further and turn images in old paintings into strikingly modern portraits. Beyond that are the truly clever who use their tools to make lifelike the busts of Roman emperors and other ancient sculptures.
The most impressive of these that I’ve found are on a site called Mystery Scoop. There you’ll find not just long-deceased beauties restored to lifelikeness with color and enhancement, but Mystery Scoop ages them, makes them smile and, using the latest advances, animates them. Among my favorite examples of his work is an Abraham Lincoln who smiles and blinks. It’s not just striking: it’s shocking to see people from the early days of photography smiling or grinning.
Next, there is so much good work being done restoring old (often very old) film footage to 4K at 60fps that I can’t settle on just one site. You’ll have to hunt around to find your own favorites, and it’s a wondrous journey. How about restored footage of the oldest person every captured on film? Pope Leo XIII, filmed in 1896, who was born in 1810 (a contemporary of Napoleon).
What about a trip down Market Street in San Francisco? In 1906, before the earthquake, realized at the proper speed, with color and sound? Or a trip through Paris in the 1890s? These restorations, which get better with each new advance in technology, are the nearest thing we have to time machines.
Lastly, a personal favorite of mine (and the other 1.61 million subscribers to her channel), Itchy Boots. This has nothing to do with footwear and everything to do with a most remarkable woman, Noraly Schoenmaker. Continuing her solo around-the-world motorcycle journey, she somehow manages to simultaneously record, edit and narrate her travels while posting 10- to 19-minute videos once or twice a week, no matter where she is. And where she is encompasses the most astonishing places, from (currently) the western Sahara to the backroads and dirt tracks of everywhere from India to Patagonia, Alaska and Africa. An astonishing individual, a trained geochemist, and the poster of some of the best drone video you will ever see (National Geographic and Discovery Channel should be jealous). As a bit of a traveler myself, I am amazed at her courage, perseverance, unfailing good humor and talent, all maintained through sometimes incredible difficulties and dangers. No camera crew, no support team. Just this flying Dutchwoman. Give her a look.
Like a few major dailies, The Washington Post can afford the luxury of retaining an art critic. A fine writer with a sharp eye is the Post’s yclept Sebastian Smee. Even when I disagree with his opinion about a particular piece or artist, I enjoy his writing and that he backs up his opinions with logic and reason as well as his own personal taste.
The only problem I have with reading his column is that before I get into the subject at hand, I keep hearing Hans Conreid’s Captain Hook from the Disney version of Peter Pan, growling “Mr. Smee!” Smee being the first mate on Hook’s pirate ship. I put that little private smile away quickly, however, and delve expectantly into the writer’s topic for the day. Most recently he did a column titled “Matisse’s — and maybe the 20th-Century’s — greatest masterpiece.”
Hyperbole attracts eyeballs, and that column headline certainly caught my attention. I carefully examined the painting in question: Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson. I read Smee’s column. I returned to the painting with greater insight and studied it more intently in the light of his well-reasoned words, eventually arriving at a conclusion.
To begin, I have to confess that while I like Matisse, I’m not a huge fan. He reminds me of a Gauguin who needs new glasses (I am a huge admirer of Gauguin, perhaps because in 1973 I lived for a summer with the woman who donated the land in Tahiti on which the Gauguin museum is situated. But that’s another tale). Given my druthers, I’d take Matisse’s Dance II over The Piano Lesson as a crucial work. Maybe that’s me choosing movement over immobility, life over a frozen tableaux, however meaningful that might be.
So then. Is The Piano Lesson, as Smee postulates, “maybe the greatest painting of the 20th century”? The problem with such a claim is that, no matter how well reasoned, greatness in art eventually becomes a matter of subjectivity. It’s easy to say a painting is great, and not just because history so anoints artists from Bosch to Rembrandt. But to claim it as “maybe the greatest” of any century invariably devolves to personal taste.
I don’t think The Piano Lesson is even “maybe” the greatest painting of the 20th century. As I mentioned, I don’t even think it’s Matisse’s best work. One can analyze and debate until eventually the art disappears in a farrago of nitpicking and counterclaim. What really is the meaning of the pointed gray stripe that covers the child pianist’s right eye? Is it meant to imply imminent death? Boredom? Dislike of the piece being played? Did Matisse’s hand just slip when he was painting the right eye and that’s how he decided to cover it up? Going to the Wikipedia page for the artist, you can scroll through hundreds of images of his work and still not find The Piano Lesson. Does evident lack of popularity mean that it’s not a great work? No. But when someone speaks of a great work of Bruegel or Titian or Hockney, a quick search will bring that work up fast in any general search.
We don’t equate popularity with greatness. Harold Robbins was arguably the most popular novelist of his time, but I never heard anyone speak of him as great. On the other hand, Stephen King is equally as popular, and I consider King a great writer, one whose work will be studied in the future. What then, separates the two?
One thing is certainly subjectivity.
It’s not like the hundred-meter dash. Drugs aside, the runner who crosses the finish line first is the winner. When you’re talking about the greatest, you quote times. It’s a simple matter of math. Doesn’t work with art.
What do I think is the greatest painting of the 20th century? Probably Picasso’s Guernica, though as personal favorites (that subjectivity thing again) I’d make arguments for Klimt’s The Kiss, or Hopper’s New York Movie, or maybe Homer’s The Gulf Stream. Munch’s The Scream misses out because it was painted in 1893.
If you’re going to say something is “the greatest” of a century, be it a painting, sculpture, film, whatever, you’re setting yourself up for some serious dissent. It’s the broadness of the claim more than the accuracy of the argument. Take Bernini. Most folks would consider his Apollo and Daphne or The Ecstasy of St. Teresa or maybe his early David as his greatest works. And they are all great, no doubt about it. But I’d opt for the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, which is in a small chapel in Trastevere, a part of Rome many visitors don’t make time to visit. But I wouldn’t argue that it’s the greatest sculpture of the 17th century.
You can eliminate subjectivity as a concern when judging the high jump. You never can with art. Which is why it’s dangerous to label anything that involves art “maybe the greatest.” Even if it’s only for one century.
In 1995 the Walt Disney corporation bought (they called it “a merger of equals”) the American Broadcasting corporation (ABC network). In 2009 Disney bought Marvel, in 2012 Star Wars, and in 2018 most of Twentieth-Century Fox.
Walt Disney once called his organizationthe studio the mouse built. The mouse now bestrides the world like a colossus. But one with friendly rides and entertainment. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t tried to buy Apple.
Change of pace. Or in film parlance, a smash cut.
Why are Americans so besotted with the goings-on of the British Royal family? The universe holds many mysteries. Black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, the red shift. Is our interest in “the royals,” akin to that of a hungry dog salivating over a handful of raw hamburger, actually something that can perhaps be attributed to quantum entanglement?
I’ve tried to understand this infatuation. I really have. I realize that it is not as dangerous as some obsessions. It’s not like some audiovisual version of Ebola. It doesn’t turn people into stumbling, slobbering zombies (okay, maybe a few). But I mean come on, people. We fought a bloody revolution to rid ourselves of this family. Is this, through all the centuries, King George III’s secret revenge?
Prince Harried’s book Spare (Spore? Snore?) has apparently already become the bestselling nonfiction tome of all time. More than any scholarly, rich biography. More than Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (Should Harry’s book be subtitled “The Rise and Fall of the British Royal Family”? Actually I think that works better than the spare Spare).
I know, I know. I haven’t read the book, so I shouldn’t comment, much less terminate with extreme snideness. Harry may be a saint or a sniveling, privileged twit. It doesn’t matter. What does matter to me as a writer and lifelong student of human nature (which you have to be to be a writer) is how the book has been snaffled up by the American public as though the secret to eternal life lay within its charmed pages. One thing I do know for certain: the sales should take care of any of the happy couple’s traveling expenses (they seem to travel quite a lot — nice profession!) for some time, with enough left over for plenty of pizza (Do the royals eat pizza? Is that tremor-inducing query answered in the book? What is “answered” in the book? And if there are answers, do any of the questions matter?).
How are these sales to be explained? How is the omnipresence of this unalloyed triumph of shallow reminiscence to be explained? If not quantum entanglement, what then? I believe I have the explanation (even though you haven’t asked me).
A couple of years or so ago, unbeknownst to anyone and kept secret via security that the CIA would envy, the Walt Disney corporation bought the British royal family.
That’s right. They now own it all, and are exploiting the purchase to unrivaled effect. Tales of the Harry-Megan family imbroglio are just the beginning. After all, everyone involved, William and Camilla included, is in the contract and gets a cut. Harry’s book is only a small sample of what is to come. I’ve had special access to the deal, and I can tell you some of what is forthcoming.
A new ride at Disneyland and Disney World that takes you through the haunted corridors and secret rooms of Buckingham Palace; another that follows Harry and Megan on their travels, allowing riders to alternately bless or curse those they come in contact with; special shops at the end of each ride (I’m old enough to remember when the rides at the parks didn’t dump you out into stores filled with endless shelves of merchandise) filled with every conceivable souvenir item of the family: Megan’s dresses (for little girls), Harry’s uniforms (for little boys), or the other way ‘round if that’s your family culture; take-home replicas of the crown jewels (okay, they already sell those. But these would have Disney characters etched on the platforms of the main gems).
You have to hand it to Disney, and to its resurrected leader, Bob Iger, who over the years surely made a deal with dark forces to have been able to finalize so many financially profitable acquisitions (read Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Accountant”). Buying the Royal Family was a masterstroke. What will we see next? Harry challenging William to a duel? Camilla and Megan wielding wands, in the grand tradition of Disney princesses (or villainesses)? Will we see Pula and Bluebell fighting over a dish (look ‘em up — do you expect me to do everything for you?).
For an early preview, watch the last 10-15 minutes of ABC’s Good Morning America, which always features something Disney. In today’s corporate world this is called synergy (in another, it’s called monopolistic). Or you could change the channel and watch the BBC, because ….
Oh bollocks, more royals. But at least on the BBC it’s expected. Unless — unless — Disney has by now secretly purchased the BBC as well.
Or possibly Britain.
“All publicity is good publicity.”
I don’t know for certain where that famous old quote originates. I’m not sure anybody does, other than it dates from the 19th century. It is often attributed to the great showman (or huckster, depending on your point of view) PT Barnum. I would not be surprised if that was the case. Barnum once posted a sign inside one of his indoor attractions stating, “This Way to the Egress.” You all know what an egress is, but back in those days the general public was less conversant with the distant reaches of the English language. So folks would follow the sign, expecting to see some new wonderment, only to find themselves standing outside with a locked door behind them.
Barnum would make use of art. Just look at the spectacular posters he commissioned to promote his attractions. I don’t think he would have taken kindly to having someone throw paint on one. To use a term less in common use today, he probably would have given them a hiding.
Sadly, there are groups in Europe doing just that. Throwing black oily liquid at masterpieces to gain attention to their cause, which is a genuine concern for the environment. Also pea soup and tomato soup, which if one is really concerned for their fellow humans would be better used by heating them up and giving the result to hungry people (none of the protesters throwing food appeared on the verge of starvation).
Many of my books and stories revolve around ecology. Here and there I’ll insert a little concern, firmly believing as I do that if 50,000 people read one page containing a message then that’s better than 50 people reading an entire book of messages. But I don’t preach. People who read books, or listen to music, or view art, don’t want to be preached to. But they’ll absorb a message if it is contained within something entertaining or otherwise engaging.
Throwing oil or food at a work of art doesn’t qualify as engaging. It’s the gesture of a child, not a mature activist. Someone who does that believes they are saying, “Look at my message,” but what they are really saying is, “Look at me.” The group that attacked (I’m comfortable using that word in this context) Gustav Klimt’s majestic painting Death and Life in Vienna declared that the act was a “desperate and scientifically grounded cry that cannot be understood as mere vandalism.”
Sure it can.
I think I have a pretty good grounding in the meaning of words, and regardless of what anybody might claim, to me throwing an oily black liquid on anything, let alone a work of art, is vandalism, “mere” or otherwise. I assure you that if you hang out in one of the bars in downtown Prescott and throw some black oily liquid over a couple of bikers, the correct interpretation of the word vandalism will be promptly explained to you in a manner devoid of ambiguity.
Yes, the environment is in trouble. Yes, governments and society are moving slowly — too slowly — in dealing with the consequences. Alas, that’s always the way governments and society have moved. It’s not as if nothing is being done. Certainly more could and must be done. But alienating the general public by performing acts of vandalism, regardless of how one tries to rationalize it, does nothing more than repulse the very people you want to persuade. I can guarantee (in fact, I’d put money on it) that not a single act of throwing oily black liquid pea tomato soup at a da Vinci has convinced a single museum-goer exposed to the act in question to suddenly change their position on environmental issues. Rather the contrary, I should think. When a protester is perceived as an idiot, the danger is that their cause is viewed in the same way.
That has always been the problem with protests. How do you draw attention to your cause without turning off the people you want to influence? Chaining yourself to a door that prevents people from getting to work is vandalism. Chaining yourself to the railing outside the door allows you to present your cause without inconveniencing people. It’s always been a fine line. Gluing yourself to a famous painting obviously draws more attention than gluing yourself to a gas pump, but is the attention you draw beneficial or harmful to your cause? How is it different from blowing up a coal train, assuming no one is hurt by doing the latter?
I know one difference: a coal train can be replaced. A painting by da Vinci or Vermeer or Botticelli (all targeted by these climate protesters and fortunately kept behind protective glass, so far) cannot.
I’ve written frequently about ecology and the state of the world. Other worlds, in addition to this one. Certain books, like Midworld, Icerigger, Sentenced to Prism and others, are centered on xenoecology. You don’t need to “believe” that all life is interconnected. All you have to do is follow the science. Above the water, below the water, in the air, everything is part of one giant interconnected Nature, whether on this planet or another. Remove one bit from the equation and the world isn’t doomed. But it’s hurt. Hurt it enough and things begin to fall apart. The current state of the Amazon is probably the most extreme current example.
We don’t have to go as far as the Amazon to see what’s happening. Big article today about how the Mississippi River is drying up. And it’s not just the Mississippi. In Europe the Danube and the Rhine are in equally big trouble. In Pakistan the Indus, which is as important to that country as the Nile is to Egypt, is not just drying up: it’s convulsing. Most recently, floods of biblical proportions have inundated a significant portion of the country’s farmland. When the floodwaters recede, people will rejoice. Which they had best do while there’s still water in which to splash around because the glaciers up in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, are receding as rapidly as glaciers everywhere else. There will come a time all too soon when people will remember when water so abundant that it overflowed the land, and thirsty children will look up at their grandparents in awe.
The real problem? The one people like to dance around?
There are 233.5 million people in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a little bigger than Texas. Pakistan is approximately 70% semiarid to arid. Here in Arizona we know all about arid. We have far more tech and money and knowledge to move limited water around to feed and sustain ourselves, and we’re still having problems.
Right now Pakistan is dealing with historic floods. Next will come desertification, with hundreds of millions of lives at stake. Where will those people go? Not to India, with its 1.4 billion souls and counting.
What might help retain that vital water? Forests.
Pakistan’s total tree cover is an unsustainable 1.63%.
Back to the Amazon, where the deforestation rate is insane. Can you imagine the Amazon drying up? It’s happening, as more and more of the forest is cut down to grow soybeans and make grazing land available. Brazil is starting to see water shortages where such a thing was inconceivable only ten years ago. To save water and generate power, a large dam-building program began decades past. But a dam is pretty damn useless if no water is running into its basin.
The equation is not complicated. No forest = no transpiration = no rain = desert. Brazil still has a chance to save a fair chunk of the Amazon, particularly in the north and west. The old-new president (remember the song by The Who?) says he intends to do just that. We’ll see.
It’s not going to be easy. As I’ve said in columns previously, after traveling through more than a hundred countries over the past fifty years, if there’s one universal it’s that money trumps everything. This is especially true in poor countries. The Amazon and Europe and the US get all the press, but horrific deforestation is taking place in Africa and Southeast Asia as well. The people there know what is happening, but seem powerless to stop it. Cutting back on methane and CO2 emissions will help the atmosphere, but they won’t do enough for the Amazon.
Since nobody asked me, here are my suggestions on how to begin.
Education is the foundation on which change is built. Education about why conserving the forest is so important, and how conserved forests can make more money (remember, it’s all about the money) than forests that are cut down. Education about birth control. Percentage-wise, Gabon is the most forested country left in Africa. It also has, compared to its neighbors, a very small and manageable population. Fewer people, fewer trees cut down, plenty of water available.
This isn’t rocket science.
Reserves and parks. These not only make money for locals as well as governments (Mamiraua in Brazil is an excellent example of how this works, as well as famous conservancies in Africa), they maintain the forest and the animals that depend on them. To make them work you need much larger ranger forces, better trained and equipped. Rangers who are well paid are far less likely to work in tandem with poachers (oh, money again).
While we’re at it, let’s continue to restore more of the American tall-grass prairie, which holds soil and releases water more slowly. The Mississippi and its tributaries will thank us. There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time left in which to do it. I’m 76, no kids, and there’s no reason I should give a damn. But I do.
It’s my planet, and I care about its future, even if I’m not going to be around to share it.
I learned how to read with a series of small paperback books called the Golden Nature Guides. Each volume dealt with a different subject: trees, insects, flowers, and so on. There was a single page for each entry, illustrated with straightforward, excellent art. I don’t know if they’re still around (they came out in the 1950s), but if you know kids who are just starting to read, these are excellent books with which to get them interested in science and the natural world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are electronic versions, but that’s not the same thing as turning the pages of a real book. The publisher was Simon & Schuster. I still have my 70-year-old copies.
My other reading instruction came from comic books. My parents bought me subscriptions to a dozen or so comics back when they used to all come out monthly, and they were mailed to our Bronx address. Superman, Green Lantern, and especially Uncle Scrooge. The Carl Barks Scrooge comics influenced thousands of kids my age, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg among them. Barks also sparked my love of world travel.
Sadly, I haven’t had time for comics in a very long while. Too many other commitments, from writing my own books and music to trying to keep up with developments on our beautiful planet and its certifiably insane dominant species. But occasionally someone will cast something my way or I’ll stumble on it, and I’ll give it a look-see. Rarely does it impel me to pursue the particular work beyond my initial exposure to it.
I’ve seen a lot of graphic novels. Earlier work from Europe, especially work that was science fiction-based, drew my attention. I admire the work of Mobius, Phillipe Drulliet and others. I became a big fan of the French series Asterix (something else to get for your kids). Heck, back in the ‘70s, after a summer in French Polynesia, I bought a copy of Asterix in Tahitian so I could practice that language. But generally I just don’t have the time to shuffle through the hundreds of excellent graphic novels that are out there (if you’re curious, Peregrine Books in Prescott carries a great selection). Then somebody told me about Blacksad.
What’s Blacksad? Well, I was informed, it’s about a detective of the same name, and the stories take place in the US in the 1950s. All the characters are anthropomorphics. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the characters are all animals who live as humans. Think Disney’s Zootopia.
Speaking of Disney: The creators of Blacksad are Spanish. For a while Disney had a branch in Spain, where the artist of Blacksad, Juanjo Guarnido, found work. When Disney closed its Spanish adjunct Guarnido was left looking for something to do, and ended up teaming with writer Juan Diaz Canales. The result was Blacksad, which is now on its fifth or sixth story, depending on how you count.
How to describe Blacksad? Suppose Disney had decided to have Raymond Chandler write one of his full-length animated films, then assigned all the very best studio artists to work on it with the admonition that nothing be kidified. Private detective Blacksad is a cat. A black cat (more of a panther, really). With a touch of white. I don’t want to compare him to any well known actors because I don’t want to have a specific image form in your mind, but if you want to give him Robert Mitchum’s voice, why, that would work just fine.
In 1950s America Blacksad finds himself involved with, among other matters; KKK-style white nationalism; Russian nuclear spies and ex-Nazi scientists; jazz, heroin, secret medical experiments on poor Southerners and New Orleans; bikers in the Southwest — maybe you don’t want to give this one to the kids. Or if your kids are especially perceptive and mature, maybe you do. Blacksad was not written for children.
I’ve written anthropomorphic tales myself. Kingdoms of Light, the Spellsinger series, and more. I loved Zootopia. So I can tell you this: The art in Blacksad is better than in Zootopia.
Different format, true. But you are genuinely not going to believe Guarnido’s work in Blacksad. And when you find out that it’s watercolor …. well. How he does it, I don’t know. There are individual panels in the Blacksad stories that would take most artists days if not weeks to draw. They all flow seamlessly. If you fill in the visual blanks mentally as you read (something animators call “in-betweening”) you can see the fully rendered animated film for yourself, if only in your mind. That film is something every fan of the series would love to see.
I recommend specific books only occasionally. The last two I recommended to folks, depending on what I knew of their interests, were Bill Browder’s Red Notice and Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942, a three-volume history of US naval operations there. It’s time to add Blacksad to the list. All the stories have been translated into English. Start with the first volume from Dark Horse Comics, which collects the three initial Blacksad tales. It will be money well spent.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke, Third Law
I guess I’m a step ahead of HAL 2000, because I can draw. A little. Although based on some new AI technology I have to think he’s lying.
There are, having hit the public consciousness rather suddenly, at least three AI-powered art programs out there. As I understand it, Google’s Imagen is not quite ready for use by the general public. Midjourney has been in the news because a user (Jason Allen, a video-game designer based in Colorado) used it to generate a picture, heavily modified by him using other tools such as Photoshop, to win an award and $300 in an art contest. Despite that the division he entered was clearly labeled Digital Art, other artists raised a fuss because most of the work had been done by the Midjourney software.
I had a look at the picture. And I was blown away. An AI did this? How? (There is no “why”). Yes, Allen modified and played with the original image, but the skill involved came not from a knowledge of painting and drawing but from revising input text over and over and then applying tools from Gimp or Photoshop or something similar. To paint a similar picture with the kind of detail, shading and color selection shown would have taken an artist using traditional methods weeks, if not longer, to complete.
I decided to give Midjourney a try. It’s plainly wonderful, but a bit complicated, and you have to join the Midjourney Discord. As someone who throughout his life is not fond of being compelled to join anything, I dropped it. I then decided to try DALL-E, bearing in mind that it is still in beta and was only open to participants via invitation (a restriction quite likely dropped and open to all by now). Although it lacks basic editing tools, there are other resources available that allow you to work further with the finished generated images.
Enter your text and four images appear within seconds. Four. In seconds. The first try, I must have just stared at the results for an absurd length of time. As I said before: How? After overcoming my initial amazement, I began to work with different images: trying variations (pick one and you get four new images based on it) and more importantly, playing with and modifying the motivating text. At first I just entered random lines that seemed likely to produce interesting outcomes. Think something along the lines of “a stoned Statue of Liberty holding a giant donut instead of a torch, on a cloudy summer day as photographed by Rolling Stone magazine.” Or in the style of Picasso, or whatever tickles your mental fancy.
No, I didn’t do that one. But you are welcome to.
It began to occur to me that I could try to do illustrations to some of my books and stories. This took a lot more work and many more tries to get something specific and, more importantly, accurate. “Human scoutship patrolling above the alien jungle forest of Midworld” took at least 20 tries, variations and subsequent adjustments before I had an image I was satisfied with.
While DALL-E is great with landscapes, buildings, and grand scenes, it’s not there as far as rendering humans is concerned. People tend to be distorted, missing fingers, or bulged in the wrong places. To produce a picture called “Mistress of Lightning” not only took more than 20 attempts, but a fair bit of modifying and cleaning up in Gimp to correct errors of anatomy and remove artifacts that had no place at all in the finished image. The result is — well, if I studied painting and drawing for ten years, I’d never be able to duplicate it. But words I do know how to use, and between those, the AI and the finishing touches I could add, I ended up with a picture I’m rather proud of.
Keep in mind that this kind of software is in its infancy, much as word processors were 30 years or so ago. The algorithms that drive these programs will rapidly improve, to the point where I believe that one day anybody will be able to paint anything. The next step after that will be to visualize an image in your mind and have connected firmware reproduce it, instantly, on a screen, on a canvas or floating in the air in front of you. Very soon, I expect, the builders of such software will be able to animate the images one creates. When that happens, the term ‘home movies’ will acquire an entirely new meaning.
You’re strolling down a street in a large American city and you see two cops walking toward you. What’s your gut reaction? Concern? Apprehension? Worry, fear? Certain mental buttons are immediately pressed. Perhaps you tense up a bit.
Why should this be? Unless you’re an occasional criminal, have a record or are violating your parole, you shouldn’t need to have any of these reactions.
I think it has to do with the uniform, and not the profession. Solid dark colors, lots of complex tech gear, visible military-style rank on sleeves and collars, glossy-brimmed or Smokey-Bear hat: none of this speaks to reassurance, which is what you should feel, unless you’re one of the aforementioned malefactors.
The first police uniforms in England appeared in London in 1829. In the US it was 1854, where the initial outfits were surplus Civil War uniforms. So the militarization of the police, at least in this country, goes back a long way. But it took quite a while to reach the state it’s in today, where police often come equipped with radios, assorted “non-lethal” weaponry such as sprays and Tasers (more departments should make use of the bola), shields, extra ammo, helmets, goggles, heavy weaponry, and for all I know the occasional small thermonuclear device.
It’s not that police departments necessarily want these goods. Much of it, such as the occasional MRAP you see in SWAT and hostage situations, has been foisted on them by the military, who are delighted to have a way to dispose of surplus equipment. Disposing of surplus equipment allows the military to buy shiny new equipment, which surprisingly rapidly becomes surplus equipment, which permits the purchase of shiny new ….
And so on.
None of this expensive materiel, which we all pay for, does any good when human capital, training and decision-making are lacking. A recent example: Uvalde. All that gear couldn’t take down one teenager, because the mental capability didn’t match the metal. The military equipment to intimidate was there, nonetheless it did no good.
Why? Why does every police force have to look like a spinoff of the Marines? Why does every two-bit captain in a three-officer town feel the need to have four stars on his collar, as if he’s some domestic reincarnation of Patton? How does it improve community safety and security when everyone who encounters a cop thinks he or she has been transported to a war zone?
We here in Prescott ought to know about that. Our early sheriffs and constables somehow managed to carry out their duties wearing regular clothes. Virgil Earp didn’t wear an army uniform. Neither did Bucky O’Neill, until he was actually in the army. And I personally prefer the term ‘peace officers.’
So consider for a moment. What would be a happy medium here, between a casually dressed Earp and someone equipped to take out a small Latin American country? Could some of the tech be dispensed with, or left in a vehicle? What about just blue clothes instead of an actual uniform? Could the headgear be changed? Is that even necessary, or is it more cumbersome to the officer than useful? (How many perps are taken down with a hat?)
A badge was enough to identify a sheriff in the old days. Is a full military-style uniform really necessary? Wouldn’t officers themselves prefer something more casual and comfortable? Bicycle police patrol in shorts and bike helmets. How many people find those outfits less intimidating, and so prove more open, responsive, and cooperative? One can’t wear shorts in Montana in winter, of course, but wouldn’t a plain non-uniform coat work just fine, with a badge prominent? Come to think of it, that’s what they do wear in the north in winter, and it’s guaranteed less threatening than the blue uniform. Can’t someone come up with a temperate-climate replacement?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 19,310 people are employed as fashion designers in the US. In a competition, surely a few could come up with designs for more practical and less intimidating attire for police to wear while on duty. Police gear changes all the time. For years now I’ve been advocating for the Prescott PD to get a Tesla or two. More and more departments around the world are opting for electric vehicles, for multiple reasons. While we’re busy redoing the patrol car, can’t we also consider redoing the clothes for its occupants?
In the 21st century a military-style uniform just pushes people’s buttons. How about we adopt something that doesn’t cause citizens to stress out at the very sight of it? It should be easy enough to test, and I’d love to see the results. As long as we’re at it, let the beat cops wear comfortable running shoes.
Even if they’re dark blue.
For years, at the end of the CBS news show 60 Minutes, commentator Andy Rooney would come on and, for roughly five minutes, bitch about something that irritated him. For all that, he possessed a kindly and avuncular manner, so that few actually took offense. He was, in short, a professional curmudgeon. I adore words that sound like their definitions. You could say that Rooney was a curmudgeon in high dungeon.
I love exploring different languages. Each has its highlights. For example, everything you say in French sounds like a prelude to seduction. Even ordering a bagel and lox (okay, if you must know, “Je voudrais un bagel grilleé avec salmon fumeé, fromage ala crème, y onion”; I’ll leave the fancy food-ordering to the critics). Swahili sounds like a made-up kids’ language. It actually is a made-up language, consisting of words taken from Hindi, German, Portuguese, Arabic, and several Bantu-related tongues. Melanesian pidgin is another one that’s fun. It sounds like it originated in Hollywood but actually, much like Kiswahili, originated as a trading language. The actress Mila Kunis once said that Russian (which she speaks fluently) sounds a lot like Klingon. And so on.
So after nearly ten years of doing this column, I thought it was time to devote part of one to giving vent to a few private exasperations, even if I don’t get paid like Rooney.
A few years ago we decided to upgrade our old TV, and so purchased a nice LG 55” set. Nothing extravagant: just a nice television sized for the space in our den where it had to fit. Good set, works fine. But the sound from any flat-screen TV comes from necessarily small speakers, so I bought an LG soundbar to go along with it. Set everything up, it worked as expected, except — I could not control the soundbar from LG’s elaborate “Magic” remote. Tried everything I could think of; no go.
It was when I read the full manual that I discovered that LG’s Magic remote isn’t magic enough to control soundbars. Not even one from the same company. So, not so magic, and very frustrating. I’ve recently discovered a workaround, but it’s way too complex to be worth fussing with, and I like fussing with electronics. And the last thing we needed for the TV setup was yet another, separate remote control (for just the soundbar).
I don’t mean to pick on LG here (okay, maybe a little), but you would think that a remote control from a company could control appropriate accessories from the same company, let alone others (Bose, Vizio, etc.). I reckon what really bothered me was that the relevant information was not displayed anywhere on the TV’s packaging, which would have saved me buying the soundbar, raising my blood pressure trying to get it to work, and then having to return it. Not to mention placing it, in smaller font, deep within the manual. I doubt LG is the only offender.
When was the last time you bought a pint of ice cream that wasn’t a pint, but 14 ounces? I’ve already done a column on product resizing, but as important as ice cream is to our general health (mental if not physical), I wanted to re-gripe about it. Read your labels before you buy. A few companies, for example Graeters, still sell actual 16-ounce pints. Don’t be fooled by “reduced” prices for the others.
If you use the main Prescott post office on Miller Valley Rd., you know that exiting the parking lot is an exercise in exasperation. The main problem involves poor folks trying to get out into the right-turn lane. Not to mention the visually and mentally impaired who pull out attempting to access the left-turn lane and end up blocking east-bound traffic because the left-turn lane onto Miller Valley has reached its two-car capacity. During Christmas, when the parking lot fills up, traffic attempting to exit backs up into the parking lot itself, and the resulting chaos is right up there with anything you’ll find in a video game.
For decades I’ve suggested taking down one tree (one) and extending the parking lot a few yards into a single right-turn only lane that would exit out directly onto Miller Valley, bypassing the intersection with the street light. This would enormously improve the flow of traffic, driver frustration, and maybe even moderate the steady flow of bad words emanating from frustrated drivers struggling to exit the post office parking lot. A post-office employee once told me that they couldn’t get the a) money, b) necessary approvals, or a) and b) to do it. As a necessary safety improvement, I would think the time has come to acquire both. After more than forty years of having to deal with the easily improvable exit setup, I’d be happy to contribute to the paving cost myself. And I bet a lumber company would volunteer to take down the one tree.
I feel better now. Thanks.
I talked a lot in last month’s column about cats and dogs, which left me wondering, as it always does, about why people keep other animals as pets, and the strange dichotomies such tastes sometimes produce.
Fish, for example. People spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on fish and their upkeep. I suppose one could regard fish more as collectibles than pets. Something to show off. They’re attractive, true, but that’s about it. You can’t walk a fish, save for certain varieties of koi you can’t pet a fish, and they pretty much only react to the offering of food.
Birds, now, that I can understand. You can pet a bird (and the bird likes it), you can walk some birds on your shoulder, and you can even communicate, sort of, with certain birds. When it comes to birds as pets, people generally speak of parrots, macaws and parakeets, but personally I would go for a corvid. Ravens and crows are often accounted the most intelligent of birds, and will work to prove it. A friend of ours had a pet crow that, when she sat down to type a letter, would pick up a piece of paper and make an effort to insert it into the typewriter (if you’re under 20, now’s the time to google “typewriter”). When she was doing laundry it would try to help load clothes into the washer. Pretty clever for a wild bird.
Pet owners often talk about how much of their choice has to do with appearance. But it’s not always the case. Take reptiles, for example (most folks won’t). Snakes and lizards can be incredibly beautiful. For years we had a bright green iguana named Broccoli (for his favorite food). But they’re not “cuddly,” people will object.
That depends on how you define “cuddly.” For ten years I enjoyed the company of a six-foot Columbian boa named Sam. As far as easy-care pets go, Sam was hard to beat. Didn’t have to walk him, he didn’t bark or hiss, and he only had to be fed a couple of times a month. Aggressive? Sam was such a scaredy-snake that I had to kill his food for him. He would slither away and cower before a live rat. When I let him out of his enclosure he would curl up in my lap and relax, or curiously explore my study.
Common misconception: snakes are slimy. Sam was dry and cool. In the summer, he would cool me on contact while my body heat would please him. It was fascinating to see him interact with small children who had not been taught to fear snakes. They would laugh and giggle as he slid all over them. In ten years he never bit anyone, which is more than you can say for your average cat or dog or kid. But I wouldn’t keep a constrictor if it grows to more than ten feet. That’s stupid macho stuff, and potentially dangerous.
Speaking of rats, there’s another potential pet that gets bad press. We have history to thank for that. I once spent part of a day in the Temple of Deshnok, in the province of Rajasthan, India. The temple is famous because the priests feed and tend to the thousands of rats that live within, believing each one to house the spirit of someone departed. No shoes allowed, so when you walk around the grounds and inside (where the darkness finally spooks some visitors), hundreds of rats scurry around and over your feet. It’s a fascinating experience. And they never bite anybody. Think the movie Ratatouille, only in real life.
Snakes and rats; sorry if I’ve creeped anybody out. The point I’m making is that we’re psychologically conditioned to accept certain animals as pets and reject others based not on how they might respond to us, but on history, superstition, and inaccurate assumptions.
For example, some people keep spiders as pets. Not just as collectibles, like fish, but as pets. Some spiders are really colorful, and they are fascinating creatures. Other people keep ferrets, and let their children play with them. Both are predators (the spiders and ferrets, not the children, at least not till they grow up). Spiders tend to be slow-moving and wary, and will not bite. Ferrets are fast, aggressive, and belong in the same family (mustelidae) as other gentle creatures such as weasels, badgers and wolverines. Want to bet which will bite first, spider or ferret?
So much of how we regard pets is psychological. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I have to admit that “Would you like to pet my Goliath bird-eating spider?” just does not generate the same response in a visitor as “Would you like to pet my parakeet?” When it comes to which critters we keep as companions, so much of it is mental.
But no one can tell me that an emerald tree boa isn’t beautiful, even if it doesn’t purr.
Thought for the day: if someone watches cooking and restaurant-review shows all night, will they a) put on weight because the shows will make them want to eat, or b) lose weight because looking at food for hours will kill any appetite? Surely this important topic has been the subject of at least a few theses and half a dozen government studies.
And now, back to the subject at hand: drones.
Axon, an Arizona company that manufactures tasers, has proposed integrating one of itsinvigorating little products with a drone. The initial mockup looks like something out of Star Wars, or maybe Dune. I don’t think it’s intentional on the part of the company, but the little airborne bugger looks downright intimidating. If I was a bad guy, saw one of these humming in my direction, and had any notion of its capabilities, I’d surrender right then and there.
The intimidation factor may be one of this product’s most underappreciated and unrecognized capabilities. It’s one thing when you’re confronted by a cop holding a taser. People tend to react to the human behind the weapon, not the weapon itself (unless it’s, say, a Mossburg). Facing an armed drone, a frantic malefactor has no one in front of them to yell at, no one to argue with, no one’s mother to insult. The operator is out of sight.
The thought behind the Axon device is to enable the authorities to send in something to safely deal with, for example, an active shooter or otherwise barricaded and unreachable suspect. Further, the small drone can dive in through an open or broken window, travel down a narrow hall and, for all I know, drop down a chimney broadcasting in Vin Diesel’s voice, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas and drop that weapon now!”
What this means is that a dangerous suspect can be confronted without risking the lives of police, firemen, paramedics or other humans. Someone experiencing a violent mental episode and waving a large knife can be safely rendered harmless with no opportunity to cut those trying to help them. There are lots of obvious advantages.
But. Suppose the candidate for take-down is out of the drone operator’s range? Or their description is known but their location only generally? Wouldn’t it be a comparatively simple matter to program such a drone with the relevant information and send it out to locate, identify, and incapacitate the suspect? An AI-driven armed drone? Surely Axon, not to mention assorted military establishments around the world, are already working on this.
Here’s today’s reading assignment for you: “Watchbird,” a short story by Robert Sheckley. First publication in Galaxy magazine, February 1953.
I consider Sheckley to be not only the greatest writer of short science-fiction, but one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. Especially during the 1950s Sheckley would toss out one brilliant tale after another, each one of which would, in the hands of another writer, serve as the basis for an entire novel. Sheckley wrote novels as well, but his true metier was short fiction. Much of his work included a healthy dose of satire. In the Soviet Union this made him a writer of significant stature. All his considerable output of short fiction is available and has been widely reprinted.
“Watchbird” deals with the prospect of AI-controlled armed drones. Drones equipped with real firepower, not non-lethal weapons like tasers. Of course if one can build a drone that can carry and fire a taser, replacing that takedown device with something more deadly, or simply destructive, is no more than a matter of a little engineering. Taser to laser, say.
Yes, I know truly powerful lasers require huge amounts of energy. But the small, cheap laser is already the source of an inordinate amount of aggravation for pilots. Imagine a flock of cheap drones equipped with equally inexpensive lasers swarming around Russian helicopters in Ukraine. I wouldn’t want to be piloting one of those Hinds.
I have to repeat that Axon isn’t (I think) considering AI-driven drones. Just the ordinary contemporary kind, operated by someone twiddling controls while following the drone’s progress via a screen and device-mounted camera. No flying Terminators. Yet.
Read Sheckley’s story. Then remember: this is from an author just speculating. In 1953. So about 70 years ago. Now take a leap of imagination forward, the same length of time. It’s 2093. We’d better keep a close eye on what goes into the chips that go into such drones.
And I don’t mean the chocolate kind.
With an exception, I love most animals. I am not fond of parasites, of which I have had personal experience. Of these, Haemadipsa picta, the tiger leech of Borneo, was probably the most entertaining, a bloodsucker that gives the lie to the old claim that you can’t feel a leech when it bites. There was also a fun encounter with amoebic dysentery, contracted in the course of a leisurely paddle down the Batoka Gorge of the Zambezi. I am also not enamored of the mosquito, though I respect its elegant design and its usefulness as a food source for other, more amenable critters. Other than these, I am pretty much comfortable around everything from skunks to sharks.
So why is it that cats are so special? You hear “she’s a dog person” or “he’s a cat person” all the time. We’ve had a number of dogs. I’ve loved them all and they’ve loved me back. But there’s something about cats ….
Even the noted horror writer HP Lovecraft was a boundless admirer of cats, to the point of writing an excellent essay on the matter of dogs vs. cats, ingeniously titled “Cats and Dogs.” Not “Dogs and Cats,” you notice. Lovecraft even wrote a charming fantasy (not horror) story on the subject, “The Cats of Ulthar.”
Lovecraft is hardly an exception. Cats figure prominently in the lives and stories of innumerable artists. I’ve written a few myself. The story “Ali Babette” and the novel Cat-a-lyst come to mind. I’ve also written stories featuring dogs, most notably The Taken trilogy. So, why cats?
I think it comes down to cats being regarded more as equals and dogs more like — well, like servants. Dogs can be trained to fetch your slippers (I guess some folks still wear slippers), bring you the morning paper (I guess some folks still read a morning paper), play chase, guard your domicile, and catch frisbees.
Rather than fetch your slippers,it is more probable that a cat will make one of them into a daybed. As regards the morning paper, a cat is likely to take personal possession of it, following which the fragments of said paper may well be unreadable, suitable only for (ponder this now) filling a cat box. A cat will play chase, but only with objects of its own desire, and at a time and place of its choosing. Cats have been known to warn their owners of danger, attack intruders, and defend children. Furthermore, they do not have to be trained to do this. As to catching a frisbee, a cat may watch, but only watch. Because fetching frisbees is an activity that is plainly beneath it, and a pastime suitable only for goofy humans.
Cats will also scour your house of mice, rats, and bugs large and small. Our cats handle any scorpions or centipedes that make it inside. Imagine your dog doing this (successfully). Cats keep themselves groomed and do not have to be walked. They (generally speaking) will not dangerously overeat if food is constantly left out for them. Their favorite pastime is sleeping, which is a huge solid for someone who works at home. They do not vocalize hysterically at passing aircraft or cars. They are excellent judges of character, where to a dog a human is immediately branded either a friend or enemy, too often without a careful measuring of relevant characteristics.
I do not mean to imply that cats are angels. Their worst trait is a propensity for consuming small birds. We have a deficit of small birds in this country that increases year by year. We keep all our cats inside, the one exception being a cat named BK who is not much bigger than the birds she would hunt, and who is never allowed outside unless I am with her. During such sojourns she has never touched a single bird.
Dogs tend to pant, whine or bark. In contrast, the hum of a purring cat is one of the most relaxing sounds in the world. Forget Sominex and its like. Nothing will put you to sleep faster than a cat curled up beside you with its purring mechanism turned on High. I once had the opportunity to pet a purring cheetah and can tell you that the only difference in sound between it and a purring housecat was the volume.
That said, much as I admire them, I would never keep a big cat as a pet. It's not fair to the feline, they don’t live nearly as long (generally) as house cats, and I don’t think I could manage regular changing of the litter box. Also, the furniture would suffer. Besides, just like humans and dogs, even the best behaved and most mild-mannered cat can have a bad hair day. In that event, if it’s your pet tabby, you might lose some skin. If it’s your pet lion, you might lose the neighbor’s kid. Notwithstanding these little peccadilloes, all cats are great people.
Also, they don’t have access to AK-47s.
My wife and I have raised and fostered a lot of cats over the years. I don’t know how you more clearly define “a lot,” but I think what qualifies is when you start forgetting names and have to begin writing them down. So I won’t try to list them all here (which would also suggest an attempt to falsely pad the word count in this column, so we’ll give formal feline nomenclature a pass).
Every one of them has been kept as an indoor cat. I do occasionally allow MK, one of our current cats, outside for a short saunter. But only when I can go with her. There is a personal reason and a scientific reason for this.
The personal reason is because I don’t think anyone in Prescott who truly loves their cat will allow them outside unaccompanied. This isn’t Manhattan. There are predators everywhere (okay, there are predators in Manhattan too, but nearly all are of the two-legged variety, and that’s for a different column). While most are interested in less dangerous prey (rabbits, rock squirrels, chipmunks, lizards), there are some large and strong enough to take a house cat — first and foremost, coyotes. More rarely, foxes and hawks. At night, great horned owls. A couple of months ago I spotted a ferruginous hawk sitting in a dead tree on the ridge above our property. It was back yesterday, an unmistakable bird. This is the largest hawk in North America and it could easily take a cat. Or a small dog. I suppose as pet owners we should be thankful we don’t have any Harpagornis around. So if you love your cat, why would you let it outside unaccompanied? It’s not like it has to be walked, like a dog. It doesn’t need acres of space to be happy.
As I said, the other reason is scientific and involves — birds.
I love cats, but I also love birds, and the inescapable fact is that the softly purring furball in your lap is also a cute little cuddly killer. It’s not their fault. Nature designed them that way. No matter how much we might like to imagine it, and despite the occasional nosh of pickle or apple, the fact is that there are no vegan cats. Left to themselves out in the wild (even the wilds of Prescott, which has considerably more wilds than Manhattan), a house cat will revert to its natural instinct to kill and consume whatever it can catch. The annual small mammal take by outdoor cats in the US is breathtaking, but the majority of small mammals killed by felines often involve mice, rats, gophers, and other unendangered critters. Birds are not nearly as fecund, and too many are endangered.
So what’s the actual number of birds killed by cats in the US?
2.4 billion. Yes, billion. That’s every year.
Nor do cats discriminate. They’re just as happy to eat a rare songbird as a common house finch. Worse, they tend to leave larger “pest” birds like urban pigeons alone. After habitat loss, in the US outdoor cats are the second-largest contributor to wild-bird mortality.
To restate: it’s how they are programmed. In their hunting and dietary habits, house cats are barely one step removed from wild felines the same size. Leopard cats in Borneo, jungle cats in India, your snoozing tabby: all would freely swap meals, including wild birds.
So then, you say, why do I let our one cat outside for even a brief walk, even while I accompany her (for her protection)? Because she doesn’t know what to do with a bird. She’ll take a few steps toward one and then slow, giving the (doubtless contemptuous bird) ample time to leave. We have other cats I would never let outside because they plainly (by their actions) would know exactly what to do given such a confrontation, and would leave nothing in their wake but feathers.
I’ve always wondered if some clever training could break house cats of their hunting instinct. I mean, if you can educate one to use the toilet instead of a cat box …. But apparently it’s a simpler matter to train a cat where to poop than not to kill.
C’mon, then. Keep your beloved kitty inside, both to preserve it and to preserve the Prescott environment we all love. If you need a reminder about what’s at stake here, take a good look inside your cat’s mouth the next time it yawns.
No vegan, that.
Ordinarily I don’t speak much to world events here. But there seems to be some confusion as to what is happening in Eastern Europe. In the interests of transparency, I will attempt, as Bugs Bunny once said, to elucidate. Especially for my Russian readers.
There is no war in Ukraine. The altruistic, one might even say caring, government of that noted teddy bear and full-time hermit President Vladimir Putin of the rapidly regressing country known as the Russian Federation has sent foreign aid in the form of 190,000 troops to help its brotherly neighbor with development, starting with the nonviolent removal of its leader, that noted Nazi Jewish comedian Zelensky, whose grandfather rose to become a decorated colonel in the Soviet army and who lost all three of his brothers to the Holocaust.
There is no movement of 3.7 million (at last count) supposed refugees from Ukraine. These are all mostly women and children who have simply chosen to vacation in nearby countries. Their husbands and brothers are staying behind to plant flowers to welcome visiting Russian troops. The benevolent visiting soldiers are helping with this by energetically turning over the soil and sometimes the pavement to assist with spring planting. As this process would normally take some time, tools other than shovels and rakes are being utilized even though, as with all construction equipment, they sometimes make loud noises when working.
Russian troops are also assisting in the reconstruction of many cities by demolishing old buildings such as residences, schools and hospitals, where sparkling new structures will arise sometime in the next millennium. Ukrainians are delighting in this assistance, as one can see by their jumping and running joyfully in many directions as this dynamic reconstruction proceeds, even in neighborhoods that did not know they needed it.
To further illustrate their involvement with the local citizenry, visiting Russian units have acted vigorously to cure an ongoing epidemic of obesity in the city of Mariupol. By cutting off all food and water supplies to the city, they are making it easier than ever for all its overweight inhabitants to lose body mass. The grateful residents can be seen crying their thanks.
To celebrate the peaceful handing over of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to the visiting soldiers, each one of whom, down to the most callow 19-year-old, is highly trained in the supervision of such complex and dangerous facilities, some fireworks were set off in celebration. These are clearly visible in the videos of our troops’ arrival. Ukrainians and the rest of Europe can rest assured that everything at the six nuclear reactors is fine and operating normally, just as they currently are at Chernobyl, which our technicians who are now also in control there can proudly declare to have been perfectly safe for no less than 48 hours.
You may have heard that a huge group of our men and equipment is “stalled” north of Kyiv. This is another lie. Their steady arrival in the city is simply proceeding at a measured pace because parking in central Kyiv requires a permit and, not wishing to upset local traffic authorities, the necessary certificates are being issued one at a time and in accordance with local regulations. No responsible tank driver wants to risk getting a ticket for parking his death machine in the wrong zone!
So you see, dear reader, there is no war, no invasion. Everything is proceeding as planned, everything is under control, and in Russia they can watch the details unfold every day on what is left of the media. Russian readers in particular should not believe the stream of lies coming from their friends, relatives, foreign media, the UN General Assembly, the rest of Europe (I mean, who needs Europe?), Asia (I mean, who needs Asia?), those perfidious Americans with their endless drivel about free elections, the Middle East, the … well, the rest of the planet. They’re all drowning in, as President Putin has repeatedly (and rather desperately) stated, an empire of lies. All of them, especially the dozens and dozens and dozens of countries that have foolishly elected to embargo everything from vodka to Russian athletes. And of course, Russian money. But true Russians don’t need money, except those who have to make payments on yachts bigger than the Kremlin.
All this temporary foolishness shall pass. Any day now, the ruble will double in value, so that it is once again worth not one but two US cents.
So I say to my Russian readers: stand fast, tighten your belts, ignore the rest of the planet, and know that all will be well. Just don’t ask too many questions. Especially in public.
I love tech. But I don’t feel the need to have the latest and greatest.
I have an advanced electric car (a Tesla), but it’s six years old. There’s nothing wrong with it, so why get rid of it? Sure, I’d like to have the latest version. But I don’t need the latest version. We have a modern OLED TV, but it’s several years old and I don’t feel compelled to buy the newest model. The same goes for every piece of technology I can think of, from space heaters to cell phones to computer mice. As much as I admire and enjoy new tech, I don’t feel I have to own the latest and (supposedly) greatest.
It got me thinking: does every generation feel the same way? Or is it just during the last hundred years that tech has advanced and changed so much that a new iteration of a familiar device or tool comes along every year to draw our attention? How did people feel when their tech was new?
“Well, this newfangled movable type is all well and good, but I prefer the artistry of a one-at-a-time handwritten book.”
“Who needs a handheld radio? Ours is a piece of furniture, solid wood, and it looks great in the living room. Yours just disappears into a drawer.”
“Silent film is an art form. Add sound and you destroy the artistry. Besides, what theater is going to pay to install a whole new audio system when they can just hire one organist who can change the music every night all by himself?”
“A cartoon that runs longer than an hour? No audience will sit still for that.” Walt Disney heard that one plenty when he was developing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Here is a selection of my all-time favorites:
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”
— Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter's call for investment in the radio, 1921
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big-business mainframe computers, arguing against the personal computer in 1977
“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and foundering at sea.” — novelist HG Wells, 1901
“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical (sic) and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.”
— Simon Newcomb; the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk 18 months later. Newcomb was not impressed.
“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”
— President of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903
“Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.”
— Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880
“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
— FCC Commissioner Tunis Craven, 1961; the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965.
“This telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
— Internal memo at Western Union, c.1877
If you look back at the history of tech, nearly every transforming piece of technology had multiple, serious, often highly respected, well-educated decriers. That’s why when something new comes along, I may not buy it, but neither do I dismiss it out of hand. Those who do end up looking like fools as often as they do seers. And I’d rather be a failed seer than a confirmed fool.
This is a serious matter when one is writing science-fiction. You don’t have to be predictable, but you don’t want to end up looking like an idiot, either. Tech advances so rapidly now that if you don’t keep up, you can be left with what you wrote looking downright silly.
That doesn’t mean you have to buy everything, just to monitor developments. If you do that, you can stay a bit ahead of the curve both creatively and financially. My Apple desktop works just fine. I’d love to have a new one, but I’ve known for a couple of years that they’ll be coming out with a newer, faster model. This year, most likely. Will I buy it? I don’t know. I will certainly admire it, but my present machine works just fine.
On the other hand, I did finally break down and buy a snow-blower. An electric one. Pretty new tech. I’m proud of myself for waiting.
Of course, if it doesn’t snow much this year, I’ll look pretty darn silly, and it won’t have anything to do with tech.
I’ve written quite a bit about music in these columns. Nightwish, the (just turned 18) Russian vocal marvel Diana Ankudinova, the Mongolian metal band The Hu, and many others. I did not come across them on Spotify, or Apple Music, or any of the other music-streaming services so popular in the US. Spotify just publishes lists of most-played, most-popular albums, etc., on its service. None of the artists I just mentioned are mentioned.
If it wasn’t for the oft-maligned Youtube, I never would have heard of Epica, or Aurora or Sabaton or any of the hundreds of spectacular bands and individual performers who flourish on the rest of the planet. Did you know there is a thriving metal scene in India? If you go to metalunderground.com, you can find a list of 113 bands focusing on Vedic or Hindu metal. Many of these bands reference Hindu deities in their songs. You’ll find that “Shiva” by Down Troddence (from Kerala) has a rather different melody than the familiar chants of “Hare, Hare Krishna. ”For something more recent, try “MachiBashad”(‘expect a riot’) by Bloodywood, written for the Ubisoft game Beyond Good and Evil 2.
Then there’s the northern European group Heilung. Performing in costume with authentic instruments (a flute made from a human bone, anyone?),and singing lyrics taken from ancient chants and runic writing, their “Alfadhirhaitil”will take you back hundreds of years, even if your own ancestry is different. Some of this music was used in the Vikings TV series.
Interested in ethereal music from the Faroe Islands? Like, who isn’t? Seriously, here is another fascinating and unique voice. Eivør also occasionally employs traditional instruments in her performances, but sometimes chorus, violins, and electronics. Listen to, and watch, her singing “Trollabundin” while perched on the edge of a spectacular Norwegian fjord. It’s magical, and you won’t hear it on your local radio.
Ankudinova (‘Deeana An-ku-DEE-novah,’ accent in the last name on the middle syllable) just turned 18, and won another competition of sorts, featuring other famous Russian performers. Although she can sing any style, her dramatic contralto (with polyphonic overtones) turns “Crow”into a listening experience that is both spiritual and shamanic. And you should hear what she does with a minor-key version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’tHelp Falling in Love With You.”
By the way, this rant isn’t just about metal. I could do an entire column about wonderful classical pieces that are never played by US orchestras (in fact, I think I will). Or straight-ahead rock. Did you know there has been a resurgence in thunderous rock played in Japan by all-female bands? My favorite is Lovebites, but I also highly recommend Baby Metal, Band-Maid, and most recently Nemophilia (no, not ‘necrophilia,’ — nemophilia is a Japanese flower).Spectacular musicians, every one of them, even though sometimes the guitars they play are as big as the performers. Yes, they’ve written music for anime, too.
Speaking of stage performances, for every group I’ve mentioned I recommend searching for the live versions rather than those done in studio. So much is lost when everything is planned in advance, and of course the energy of the crowd is entirely absent. Sometimes there are only videos, but watching Rammstein pound out “Du Hast” in Paris while listening to an enormous French crowd sing along most of the verses in German is something not duplicated by a constrained studio video.
I hope I’ve given a tiny indication of the variety that’s available on today’s music scene. You won’t be exposed to it with any of the awards shows. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of contemporary US music I love, starting with the orchestral work of Jennifer Higdon and the angry metal of “Disturbed.” But you have to seek it out. When was the last time you heard a European band(never mind one from India, or Japan, or the Middle East, or even —Iran)? Try “Faryadkon”(‘scream out’) by Farshid Arabi. It’s not on any ayatollah’s listening list.
It being the holiday season, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention my new favorite Christmas song, “Valhallelujah,”by the Italian band Nanowar of Steel.
Me? While I go back to finishing the first movement of my fifth symphony (writing music is a hobby) I’ll eagerly count down the days to Jinjer’s concert on January 12 in Tempe. It’s a Ukrainian heavy-metal band, wonderful stuff. Look ‘em up.
Look these folks up. You’ll have to, ‘cause they ain’t being played on your local radio.
If diamonds are forever and diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then advertising is a diamond’s best friend. Because the twin marches of exploration and technology have rendered the diamond far less valuable than it used to be.
Not so very long ago all diamonds were natural. Despite that, they still were not all that scarce. What rendered them “scarce” and pricey in modern times was the domination until 2000 of diamond mining and sales by the DeBeers Group. The slogan “diamonds are forever” was actually coined in 1947 by a copywriter. In 2000, Advertising Age magazine named “A Diamond is Forever” the best advertising slogan of the20thcentury. Prices came down when large producers such as Russia and Brazil refused to go along with DeBeers’ regulations and pricing. In Europe, amethyst used to be as costly as diamonds, until enormous deposits of the beautiful purple quartz stone were discovered in Brazil.
A constant barrage of advertising managed to convince people that a white (colorless) diamond had somehow become a symbol of undying love. In reality, colored diamonds are much rarer and for many, far more beautiful. To me the deep blue of diamonds like the Hope is far more attractive than a stone without any color. If we want to talk about scarcity and value in a gemstone, nothing is more valuable than a true red diamond. If you have never seen one, that’s because only about thirty gem-quality natural red diamonds are thought to exist. The largest, the Mousaieff Red (previously known as the Red Shield),is only a little over five carats and is effectively priceless.
Today it’s possible to buy lab-grown diamonds that even gem institutes certify as true diamonds. Knowledgeable buyers (romantic and otherwise) frequently opt for these because of their lower cost. They are indistinguishable in appearance and chemical composition from “real” diamonds. If you are interested, information about these perfect synthetics can be readily found online. They don’t damage the environment via mining and nobody dies in the course of their manufacture.
But why go with diamond? I suppose for many buyers it’s a matter of tradition. Mom had a diamond ring, her mother had a diamond ring, and so on. I personally find rubies and sapphires more attractive, especially when set off by smaller white diamonds. And thanks to technology, you can also acquire synthetic rubies and sapphires that, like synthetic diamonds, are indistinguishable in appearance and chemical composition from the natural stones.
Some find them even more attractive, since unlike the majority of examples found in nature, synthetics are fashioned devoid of imperfections. This is even more important with lab-grown emeralds (emeralds have a composition different from rubies and sapphires), which are often replete with inclusions and other imperfections. If sapphires interest you, look for the pink-orange variety known as padparadscha—a lovely color variation.
What about other gemstones? Tanzanite (zoisite) has become very popular. Bear in mind that nearly all gem tanzanite has been heated to create or enhance a blue color. Most natural tanzanite is brown. Heating the stone removes the brown, leaving the favored blue hue. This doesn’t change the stone’s value, only its appearance.
Over the years I’ve become very fond of unusual gemstones. One of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry I’ve ever seen is a necklace in the Huntington Hartford museum in San Marino, California, fashioned of diamonds and large benitoites.
Benitoite is a gemstone with the dispersion (sparkle) of diamond and the color of a deep sapphire. In fact, benitoite was first thought to be sapphire when it was discovered in San Benito County, California, back in 1907. But it’s another mineral entirely. To this day gem-quality benitoite hails from a single mine in that location —and serious mining there shut down in 2006. At $4-8,000/carat, it’s becoming harder and harder to find. Anything of quality over two carats is a real rarity and proportionately expensive. It is absolutely gorgeous. All that keeps it from being even more costly is that it’s not as hard (and therefore not as durable) as diamond or ruby/sapphire. It is also the state gemstone of California. I’m not aware of any company making synthetic benitoite.
Want something equally unusual but less scarce and pricey? Look for sphene (titanite), an exquisite lime-green gemstone with high dispersion. Color-wise, it doesn’t look quite like anything else, and it won’t break your bank account.
There are dozens of other beautiful gemstones out there that cost a fraction of natural or synthetic diamonds. It just takes a little time and research to find something that appeals to you and yours. There’s also that old reliable, cubic zirconia. Maybe it doesn’t have much inherent value, but properly set and seen under a bright light, a good one can still dazzle the eye.
In the end, it’s all about what we value as beauty, not what value is artificially attached to an object. You can never put a price on the thought and emotion behind any object. In the end, it’s the intangibles of a gift that have the real value — and hold it.
Over the course in this column I’ve mentioned a fair number of artists: Floor Jansen of Nightwish (and the rest of the band), Jinjer, the wonderfully inventive band from Ukraine featuring their extraordinary singer Tatiana Schmaylyuk, Angelina Jordan, who is now signed to and working with Republic Records, and Cortney Hadwin, who seems to be lying a bit low these days. A couple of years ago I also mentioned and recommended Diana Ankudinova, the Russian prodigy.
Remember that name. “Dee-ana An-ku-DEE-no-vah.”
She first burst on the world with her renditions of “Rechenka” and the Chris Issak song “Wicked Game” on a Russian television show and talent contest for children who have undergone hardship. Diana’s story redefines the word “hardship. ”Much of it is available on the net, but briefly: cast out by her birth mother at the age of three (in winter and with a broken collarbone no less), found by an aunt and taken to an orphanage, eventually adopted by one of the workers there at the urging of that woman’s own daughter, she was so traumatized she could not be made to talk. Someone suggested having her try to sing and, well, the rest is history (and she talks just fine now).
There are many good singers, fewer great singers, and a very small number who are unique singers. Diana is a natural dramatic contralto. This is the lowest range for a female singer. She is also polyphonic. Roughly, this means that when she sings she often sounds like more than one person singing at once. As you can imagine, the combination is extraordinary. So too is her full range.
I’m mentioning her now because while she was remarkable at 14(“Rechenka”) and 15 (“Wicked Game”), she just turned 18 and for the past year has been studying at the prestigious Russian Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow, and those studies have enormously aided her in developing not only her control but her upper register. The Russian music entrepreneur and composer, who has worked extensively with Dimash (another name you should know if you do not), bought her an apartment in Moscow so she could safely further her musical development. She lives there today with her adoptive mother, Irini Ponik, and Irini’s birth daughter.
Singers at age 14 can do things that astonish us. Witness the careers of Jordan and the Dutch prodigy Amira Willighagen. But even when included in this company there is something special about Diana. I love the performances of the two singers I just mentioned, but they are (perfectly) controlled and measured. Diana is more akin to a force of nature. One of the most common descriptions of her performances is “shamanistic.” Some of this has to do with the remarkable timbre of her voice, some with the sheer intensity of her performing. In this she is closer to Floor Jansen. With both women you can see as well as hear the intensity, the emotion, contained with both the lyrics and the music. A duet between the two would be something magical.
If I’m not mistaken Diana has won every musical competition she has entered (save for an early one accused of being politically corrupt).In the very first one she wins, where she sings “Rechenka” (and “Derniere Danse” — in French) she received 49% of the general vote. The second-place finisher received 9%. That gives you some idea of how she dominates such venues. Currently she is singing for nine weeks in another Russian competition called ShowMaskGoon (get it? “Show must go on”). Performances are every Saturday, and you can bet hers will be posted by Youtube reacters almost immediately thereafter.
Her first two-minute performance on the show (all the initial performances are brief) is of a very dark version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’tHelp Falling in Love.” I’m not sure what you anticipate hearing, but I guarantee it won’t be anything like what you expect. The show’s production values are also outstanding.
Two things I noticed immediately when comparing this performance to Diana’s previous ones: first, her control shows the results of ayear’s worth of professional voice training, and second, as she matures her power is becoming fully unleashed. When someone says she blows you away, it carries a literal meaning. I can’t wait to see what the show’s next eight weeks bring.
One concern I’ve always had about Diana’s career is that much of her singing to date has revolved around folk-style traditional music. I think it’s time for her to break out with a song to attract non-Russian listeners, even if, like the Presley, it’s a cover. That’s assuming it’s something she wants. She’s given glimpses of that (an in-home take on Aha’s “Take on Me,” for example).
And boy, would I love to hear her tackle metal.
I’ve written quite a bit in these columns about science. I’ve written very little about anti-science. For those who would like to research the subject in depth there is an excellent publication, The Skeptical Inquirer, that can keep you up to date on everything that’s wrong with Filipino faith healers, astrologers, UFO believers, Bigfoot, Smallfoot (okay, I made that one up), ghosts, poltergeists, ancient aliens, and every imaginable variety of snake-oil salesman(for the record, you can’t get much oil out of a snake. You can get venom, which has its uses, but that’s a subject for a whole other column).
So if that magazine and the organization that publishes it provide such a wealth of information on such disreputable subjects, why am I writing about it? Well, I suppose I suffer from a disproportionate adherence to Logic and Reason, those two bugaboos of the excessively credulous. Or, to sum up the situation that seems to be all-too prevalent among the species right now,
Believing is easy. Thinking is hard.
Don’t give in to the fallacy that this is just an American problem. It’s way too common an affliction all over the planet. The difference is that in countries with higher levels of education, the extremes of deliberate disbelief are just more obvious. It is one thing to hear that folks in a far-off land still believe in the efficacy of witchdoctors and shamans, quite another to find out that in the wealthiest country on Earth there are still people who think the world is going to end tomorrow because some dude interpreted four hundred and twenty-two words in an old book (Bible, Koran, Talmud, Bhagavad-Gita, take your pick) to mean that. Funny how such predictions keep getting pushed back a year or two, or three, or a couple of decades, or ....
The situation is worse in Russia, for example. Since the government there lies to its people all the time, I suppose it’s not surprising they would seek refuge and hope in comforting nonsense. Soviet science was a bastion of prevarication, since what was required for advancement was adherence not to scientific knowledge but to the reigning political stance of the moment. Sadly, too many of us are suffering from the same aberration right here, right now.
It’s a funny thing about science: you don’t get to pick and choose the parts you like. Either you believe that a motor powers your car according to the accepted thermodynamic laws, or you ascribe its forward motion to the kindly intervention of overheated gargoyles. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the same with medicine, which is why I’m writing this.
Because there are folks who for multiple reasons are refusing to get vaccinated. What’s contradictory is that these same folks have likely already been vaccinated multiple times, against polio, measles, possibly mumps and chickenpox, tetanus, shingles and pneumonia if they’re smart, hepatitis especially if they’re traveling overseas, and more. Because I’ve been to some out-of-the-way places I’ve also been vaccinated against yellow fever, dengue fever, taken malaria prophylaxis, and some stuff whose names I can’t remember.
As a result, I’ve never acquired any of those charming afflictions.
Yet there remain many who seem to think that the combined efforts of three major drug companies, the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, plus the President of the United States and one (or maybe both) political parties have joined forces solely to — what? Pollute our precious bodily fluids, as General Jack D. Ripper insists in Dr. Strangelove? Secretly implant us with chips from Microsoft (that likely wouldn’t work anyway)?
Here’s what I know about conspiracies. The more people who are involved, the more difficult it is to keep things a secret. In this day and age, when governments can’t keep their own secrets a secret and just one person in the know could shatter a conspiracy for personal reasons or for money, it seems odd that out of the thousands and thousands of employees, family members and just plain nosey-pokes, not a single one has come forward with verifiable evidence that anti-Covid vaccines do anything other than what they are intended to do.
Of course, there’s always hydroxychloroquine for the obstinate. And my favorite, the veterinary drug ivermectin. As to the latter, the CDC has stated succinctly, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Don’t do it.” But that’s obviously part of the conspiracy. As with all the other quack remedies you could verify its effectiveness with those who relied on them but are dead. Except they’re dead.
I have this feeling that those who did that and died would offer differing opinions on the usefulness of Covid vaccines if they were still alive. Unfortunately all they can do is lead by example.
It’s all the fault of that darned science stuff. Remember that the next time you have to see a doctor. You really don’t know what goes into that flu shot. Or an aspirin. Or Cocoa Puffs.
First off, this is the shortest title I’ve ever used for a column. Second, it may be the most important one. Those of us who live in Arizona are a lot more sensitive to water issues than our fellows living in, say, Vermont. Or Suriname, or Gabon. But we have a lot in common with folks who dwell in those similar climates: Nevada, or Burkina Faso, or anywhere in the Middle East. Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades. Not so. It has all been hit and miss and on a small scale (at least in this country). Not enough folks are talking about water as a global problem.
Time to start.
Just because Arizona is perennially short of water doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be discussed in New Hampshire, or Minnesota, or other water-rich places. Because what affects one part of the country or one part of the world eventually affects us all. How does the water shortage in Mali affect citizens of Arizona? Well (no pun intended), if there’s no water there, people will move to a place where there is. Humans have been doing just that for thousands of years. Just ask the Anasazi. If there’s no water in Burkina Faso, eventually its inhabitants will have to move where the water is. Maybe New Hampshire, or Minnesota.
We don’t have to let them in, you say. These water refugees. But the need for water exceeds that for any other condition. Food, work, anything. No water, no life. Physiologically, everything else is peripheral.
The sad thing is that there is lot that can be done to deal with the problem. And I don’t mean just by fixing climate change. Might be too late for that. Truth is there’s plenty of water. The problem is that most of it is not usable. But it can be made usable, and can be used much more efficiently. As an example of how not to use water resourcefully, consider the growing of almonds and avocados in California, two hugely profitable crops that use vast amounts of water. Two others in the same category are rice, also grown in California, and sugar cane. Realistically, the world could probably do without three of the four, and the water savings would be substantial.
Don’t blame Arizona cotton. Most cotton is not grown using irrigation. But agriculture does account for 80% of the water use in Arizona. Cut that by a quarter and you double the amount of water available for human use. Nor is Arizona an exception when you parse similar figures around the country. The percentage of water used for agriculture is even higher in New Mexico.
Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades.
This gives us a cushion, some time to deal with the real water scarcity that may be coming. Alarming articles in the media won’t solve it. What might are engineering and science. If there is one thing that Arizona, Burkina Faso and other water-scarce countries usually possess, it’s sunshine. Sunshine means solar power, and power provides the means to desalinate ocean water. Many countries in the Middle East not only have access to solar, they have alternate sources of the necessary energy in the form of oil and especially natural gas. That’s why there are no water restrictions in hotels in Dubai, for example. Desalination.
But it takes political will along with the availability of natural resources to promote this process. A good, or rather bad, example are the water riots currently taking place in Iran. These represent the kind of conflict that scientists (and science-fiction writers)have been predicting for decades.
What underground water there is in Iran has been siphoned off to feed large farms, many of which are owned by the Revolutionary Guard. So when local people protest that they haven’t got enough water to drink, let alone to irrigate their small plots, they tend to get shot. What is sad is that Iran possesses not only copious amounts of solar potential, but vast reserves of gas and oil capable of powering those aforementioned desalination plants. They just lack the expertise and engineering know-how to put it all together. And which country in the Middle East has more experience with and knowledge of both technologies? Israel. Just ask farmers in Ecuador, where Israeli water experts have been active for decades.
So because of politics, Iranians go thirsty.
They won’t be the last to do so. The same problem of over pumping of ground water and too little rain exists all over the world, from central Asia to north Africa, to the west coasts of North and South America. You would think given the ubiquity of the problem that governments would hurriedly be preparing for the worst. Especially since we’re starting to see the beginnings of the worst right now. Water wars are old news in the American West. Given the current situation in Oregon, maybe not so old.
Drink up. While you can.
The most amazing free show in the US (possibly on the planet) is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, held every year for more or less the first two weeks in February. It’s a nice, cool time to be in Tucson, though finding a room anywhere in the city while the show is ongoing can induce enough stress to cause a visitor to overheat regardless of the actual ambient temperature.
The Tucson show is a place to admire and shop for things you cannot find anyplace else. A lot of the fine mineral specimens you see in fancy shops around the world are initially purchased wholesale at Tucson. Some of the individual portions of the show are off-limits to those without a resale license, but even so it would take you days just to walk fast through those sections that are open to the general public. Think trying to do Disney World in a day. The best part? It’s all free. There’s no admission charge.
Traders and dealers come to the Tucson show from all over the world to exhibit their wares. Want to buy raw or cut sapphires? There’s a whole room dedicated to dealers from Sri Lanka who bring their product to the show. Nor is it all rocks and minerals. There are areas dedicated to African arts, to (presumably legitimate) archaeological material and, of primary interest to me, those that focus on fossils and related items.
Want to buy a whole dinosaur skeleton? Try the Tucson show. In addition to major dealers, every now and then a couple of guys will show up out of nowhere selling fascinating goods from nowhere. One year one such instance involved an enterprising couple of gentlemen from Siberia. They brought with them mammoth ivory, which is legal to trade in some states and not in others. Even today the trade in ancient ivory is still very much a gray area. (Interesting current information here.
What these two visitors from the Yakutia region of Siberia (which, coincidentally, is also the greatest source of Russian diamonds) discovered is that folks interested in fossil ivory are also interested in acquiring other parts of extinct pachyderms. So in addition to tusks and fragments thereof they had bones for sale and, neatly packed in small plastic bags — hair. Not for nothing were the owners of those tusks called woolly mammoths.
I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine.
Like bone and ivory, hair holds up quite well after being preserved for thousands of years in ice and permafrost. It’s not “good” for much. You cannot carve it into trinkets or sculptures. You can’t make knives from it, or clasps, or belt buckles. It has the consistency of horsehair — which is what many who see it assume it to be. But it is truly hair from a long-dead relative of elephants. It is an amazing feeling to hold, to feel, these stringy fragments of the ancient past. To feel the weight of ages crinkle beneath your fingertips. It brings a period of Earth’s recent history to life in a way no painting can ever hope to match.
It seems that chipmunks think so, too.
Located above a garage, separate from the main house, my study is pretty secure against insects and the elements. But not, it seems, against marauding chipmunks. They sneak in via the air conditioning/heater vent. Every once in a while as I sit working at my desk I’ll hear an unexpected, sharp chip-chip. Looking around, I’ll see nothing. But I know the invader is there, somewhere, lurking behind a bookcase or the TV, gracefully cleaning its little nose and eyes, waiting for me to leave for the night so it can go exploring. I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine.
I have also learned, to my distress, that they are not above sampling potential food (or more likely nest-building material) that is somewhat beyond its expiration date.
So I put my sample of Elephas primigenius fuzz in a cabinet and wait for the opportunity to catch and release. This takes less time and effort than one might think, since sooner or later Mr. C. Munk gets bored with his unappetizing new surroundings and emerges so that I can either shoo him out the door or catch him in a pail and usher him downstairs and safely into the nearest dense undergrowth. While carrying out this chore, one that is unfamiliar to my New York friends, I have never been bitten or clawed. But I have been chewed out, if not chewed upon, by my highly excitable temporary guests.
Is it so wrong of me, when I am being chattered at, to occasionally in my mind hear instead the long-lost trumpeting of an ancient and decidedly hairy giant who once trod the earth?
While going about our daily lives there are certain things we take for granted. Breathable air, water, clouds in the sky, the warmth of the sun, the presence of other humans performing similar tasks around us. We find these everyday commonalities reassuring. We like to keep them close, not only because they support life but because we enjoy them. Unless you live in a barren desert like the central Sahara, northern Namibia or outside Yuma, it is likely that you also enjoy the presence of plants.
I don’t think it’s just because plants provide us with oxygen, although hiking through a temperate rainforest feels like being on oxygen supplementation. I believe it has to do with their presence providing a continual reassurance that Things Are Okay. That, regardless of what we do, life as we know it will proceed on its normal path. There is a psychological as well as physiological component to why we enjoy having growing things around us.
Why else would people buy artificial plants? They’re available in so many stores, from Hobby Lobby and Michael’s to Walmart and supermarkets. They emit no oxygen. They are as sterile as a chair or piece of wallboard. Yet they sell, and those of good quality are not cheap. It makes one wonder why so many end tables and mantles are decorated with a vase full of synthetic daisies and daffodils instead of a painting, or sculpture, or relic of human manufacture? Is it just to add color? There are many other objects that provide as much color, and greater variety of form. Furthermore, sometimes flowers will be completely absent and an arrangement will consist of only greens, or faux dried grasses, or imitation lichens on fake bark.
Convenience is the only acceptable explanation. Live plants require cleanup when they shed, watering if they’re alive, spraying for insects even if indoors, judicious placement so they’ll have sunlight, locations that will keep them away from pets and children. They are a lot of work. Yet the business of houseplants and of home gardening support entire industries. Not to mention an enormous array of services devoted solely to the fostering and support of growing grass. Or, as we have come to know them, lawns.
(Wikipedia: Lawn is a cognate of llan, which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: lande), originally meaning heath, barren land, or clearing.)
We dwell, more and more, in cities, artificial environments composed of concrete, steel, processed wood and glass. These surroundings provide most of what we need. But not greenery. So we hammer holes in sidewalks, fill them with imported soil, and plant trees and bushes. We cut away street corners and lovingly install beds of flowers. Apartment-dwellers hang planters from windows and porch rails. Why? It’s not functional. Paintings can hang from balustrades. Sculpture can (and does) repose inside skyscrapers. Sidewalks are for walking on. Interrupting them with space for trees, bushes and flowers reduces their functionality. Yet nearly every city in the world makes room for plants.
No one objects to parks. Why not a greenhouse?
Decorative plants. Farming is another matter entirely. Even so, I have heard farmers speak with delight at seeing fields of wheat, or rows of corn, or golden tsunami of sunflowers, not simply because they represent income but because of their aesthetic beauty. Far fewer speak of the visual attractiveness of a herd of cattle or pen of chickens. These remind us of food. Plants, even those we consume, remind us of life.
In the rainforest, where plants can sometimes sting and burn, there is a feeling of being connected to the Earth, to the planet, that must be experienced to be understood. I’m not going all metaphysical on you, now. It is a real thing. The more plants there are around you, the more you feel alive. No one walking off a paved street into a large greenhouse can deny the feeling. Just being around plants generates a surge of endorphins.
It’s why I think every town and city should support a municipal greenhouse. We do parks, which supply some greenery. No one objects to parks. A greenhouse augments the park effect. I don’t recall having seen any proposals for an urban, city-supported greenhouse in Prescott. We have parks, we have museums. Why not a greenhouse? A refuge from weather and concrete. A place to enter, stroll and commune with nature in a way no other facility can provide.
When I attended UCLA the hidden secret among students was the botanical garden at the south end of the school. It offered lush growth and gurgling streams in the midst of the city. It was my favorite place to get some studying done. Perhaps our local colleges could be involved in creating such an oasis for Prescott.
If the massive facility that is Biosphere 2 can make a go of it in the desert, surely a little slice of rainforest could be created here in Prescott. We all need a little more greenery in our lives. Call it a CBD — communal botanical destination.
Why? Because outside its supernal coolness, it humanizes a technological development that gives many people a mental hissy-fit. To wit, the notion that one day in the now not-so-far future, humanoid robots will take over the world (unless Pinky and the Brain beat them to it).
For years, engineers and technicians have been working hard to fashion robots that look like us. In contrast, the really practical robots we have built look nothing like humans. Most are little more than mechanical arms terminating in a variety of tools designed to complete one task and one task only, over and over and over. Industrial robots do not get tired, don’t require lunch or potty breaks, can work around the clock and, perhaps most important to certain companies, are in no danger of unionizing. They are the perfect workers: silent, efficient, incredibly precise, and utterly lacking in anything resembling a retirement plan. Watching them hard at work, many don’t even think of them as robots. They're just repetitive, mindless tools, no different from a power drill, bandsaw, or certain Congressmen.
But humanoid robots, even though on the inside they are little different from those automatic welders and lifters and cutters and paint sprayers, have always had a tendency to unsettle people. Blame it on the movies, where most robots seem to have an irresistible desire to burst through walls, assassinate innocents, reject their programming, and occasionally carry off that C-level actress who won Miss Pork Pie Topeka 2020 and whose acting skills barely come up to the level of the machine hefting her, but whose exterior is of a different and usually more interesting configuration altogether.
To reiterate once and for all, robots that look like us are no different from those that polish toasters prior to final packaging. They can only operate according to their programming, right? Except, as demonstrated by the Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot (who, interestingly, has no spots), they are now for the first time capable of making their own rudimentary decisions. Program Spot to run into a wall and Spot’s internal decision-making capabilities will allow him (it? her?) to avoid the collision. That’s an impressive step in the development of robot AI. Maybe not as impressive as a pair of humanoid robots doing the funky chicken, but the latter example is wholly pre-programmed. There’s no independent decision-making involved. When a humanoid robot competes on Dancing with the Stars to its own self-generated choreography, then maybe it’ll be time to be a little twitchy (“I’m sorry, sir, but your moves are entirely too stiff and mechanical”). Subsequent to which the irate robot vaporizes the judges (no, wait ...).
Blame it on the movies.
See how easy it is to lose oneself in contemplation of an entertaining if unlikely near future? I don’t worry about robots. What I do occasionally worry about is inimical programming. Right now there is nothing like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (look ‘em up) because there is no need for them, nor does there currently exist any robot that would need to be governed by their strictures.
The future, now — I can’t predict what artificial intelligence or AI programming will be like in a hundred years. Nobody can. Keep in mind that eighty years ago a video of dancing robots existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. For that matter, video existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. Not to mention having a home computer or phone capable of viewing it. That’s how fast technology is changing.
Simple robotic devices now clean our homes, our hotels, work in hospitals, do limited driving of our cars, make decisions for aircraft (mostly but not always good ones, sadly), explore the oceans, and drive around semi-independently on Mars. None is humanoid in shape. There is no reason why they could not be, except that it is not practical. Remember the animated TV show The Jetsons? The cartoon family had a robot maid who vacuumed and did housework. Today you can buy a robot to do the vacuuming, but it doesn’t look anything like the Jetsons’ loquacious Rosie. Just as all those robots working in auto plants look nothing like the Terminator. Or your Uncle Sylvester from Philly.
If and when we do get commercial-grade humanoid robots, they will have to be programmed. It is conceivable that such machines could be programmed by evil technicians to carry out malicious tasks. We will need some kind of fail-safe built into every robot so that unstable Ted Suburban can’t program his new household model to go strangle his noisy neighbor. Or his barking dog (pace, Spot). Of course, Ted will also program his own household robot to defend him, as supported by the NRA (National Robot Association).We will need new laws, maybe new courts, and perhaps eventually a robot Bill of Rights.
For now, though, I’m happy to watch them dance to “Do You Love Me” on the official Boston Dynamics video. Not so much the fan video that overlays Flight of the Conchords’ “The Humans are Dead” on the same imagery.
I have to admit that one is a teensy bit unnerving.
So for this month’s column I thought to do something related to the number 100. My initial idea was to write about the hundred-dollar bill, but that seemed churlish given that a lot of people right now are experiencing a shortage of that particular denomination. Times are tough for many folks, and one thing they do not need is to be reminded of what they don’t have.
What does everybody have? What commonality circulates around the number 100? This being Arizona, often the first thing that comes to mind for residents as well as visitors is the temperature. Every radio and television weather broadcast seems to have a contest offering prizes for the individual who can pick the first day and sometimes the exact time of day the temperature in Phoenix, or Yuma, or Tucson, will hit a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s a good thing the Founding Fathers didn’t listen to Benjamin Franklin or we would somehow have to struggle along without these contests. Franklin wanted the nascent US to adopt the much more sensible metric system. In Celsius, a hundred degrees Fahrenheit is 37.77 degrees. This is plainly an insufficiently catchy number on which to base a weather contest. Similarly, a hundred degrees Celsius is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point goofy weather contests become untenable. Also our species and pretty much everything else.
I reckon I have seen tens of thousands of television weathercasts. In these days of fast internet connections and wristwatches that are smarter than their wearers, the weather forecast is available instantly nearly everywhere in the world. Such forecasting has transformed farming in Africa and fishing in the Pacific. But we still have our television weather segments to break up the actual news and force us to wait for the sports. Green screens and remote controls notwithstanding, these weathercasts represent a link with the television past. Presentations are sufficiently traditional that there is actually very little to differentiate a TV weather forecast of today from those in the early days of the medium.
Still, some things don’t change. For example, in hopes of gaining viewers many station managers experiencing low ratings tend to favor attractive women to present the weather. They may have advanced degrees in meteorology or competing in beauty pageants, and I do not need to explain which one will get you on the air faster. Having both is a rare combination. Failing that, there is a noticeable correlation between the ability to speak rapidly the higher up one rises in national weather presentations on the major networks. The principal weather folk on all the national US channels talk so fast that they might as well be explaining binary code instead of the cold front currently passing through Dubuque.
In contrast, weather presenters in other countries aim for comprehension instead of speed. I enjoy watching the weather on the BBC, not only because the presentation is sedate (although even the Brits seem to be shoveling it at us faster and faster these days, just like Americans), but also because the Beeb gives us the weather for the entire planet. There’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in enjoying the weather in Arizona while Shanghai is bracing for a typhoon. Tracking the seasonal monsoon in India brings those of us in Arizona a bit closer to the other side of the world.
There are a few things about the traditional TV weathercast that still bother me, though. Why is it that when I really need to see the forecast for Prescott and the weather map is on screen, the presenter always seems to be standing in front of Prescott? And that map! The names of the cities are writ so large it is impossible even for those of us who have lived in this state a long time to locate our communities. Take Casa Grande. On the weather maps, you can scarcely tell by looking at the longish name whether the city lies in the western or eastern portion of the state, much less pinpoint its exact location. In addition to the city names, why can’t weather maps put in little stars or something to indicate exactly where a city is situated? Somehow I think the relevant expensive software could handle that.
At least we don’t live in a vast metropolitan area like greater Phoenix. Presumably the folks who dwell in the Valley of the Sun have some idea where their homes are located when the city weather map appears. Is it really necessary to show the same temperature (maybe a degree difference now and then) between Gilbert and Chandler, downtown Phoenix and Glendale? All those similar, often identical forecasts just crowd the map.
Last, I have to plead with the station weather folk. Please, please, when you’re showing weather rolling through Arizona, could you maybe run through the weather’s progress at a speed lower than supersonic? As it is, within seconds an incoming, developing storm has traveled on the map from Yuma to Window Rock. Then you repeat it. At the same ridiculous speed. Over and over. Maybe you stop the video once. Twice, if the viewer is lucky. Honestly, while you are talking couldn’t you slow down the video so we can actually see where and when the rain or snow is going to materialize?
Unlike the inevitable follow-up plug for the chili festival in Apache Junction, that would actually be useful, weather-wise.
I’m not talking about modern CGI, where an entire individual is recreated using computer graphics. I am referring to the use of advanced colorization techniques and AI to reanimate the appearance and in some cases the movements of the long departed.
This is a trend that began by using computers to colorize old black-and-white films. The first efforts were, at best, muddy and consisting of fuzzy imagery that looked like it had been colored with crayons. The necessary tech improved rapidly. Colors became more natural and the images sharper.
Following film, the technique was applied to classic television shows, so now we can watch episodes of I Love Lucy and revel in the sight of Lucille Ball’s red hair without flinching. Whether or not you agree with the practice, it has to be admitted that color adds sprightliness and immediacy to the old broadcasts. I suspect that before too long the technology required will become cheap and easy enough to use so that you can do it on your home computer, enabling you to render in color that favorite obscure TV show from your childhood (well, from the childhoods of folks my age, anyway).
I do not know at what point or place in time it occurred to someone that a similar technique could be equally applied to still as well as moving images. Adding color to still photos by means of hand-coloring has been with us almost since the invention of photography, proving that many people wanted images in color from the beginning. It’s one reason why folks continued to sit for portrait paintings long after photography provided a more accurate rendering of reality.
I appreciate the aesthetic of b&w photography as much as anyone, but eliminating color does not always enhance life. It’s a different art form, much as silent film differs from sound. But from the standpoint of bringing people to life, b&w, especially early b&w, has a number of unavoidable drawbacks.
First off, well, dead people turn gray. No getting around that one. No matter how you try to rationalize the time and tech, sitters in 19th-century photos always appear just a little demised. Then there is the usual stiffness, the formality of their poses. This was largely, but not always, because it was considered appropriate to act formally when sitting for a formal portrait. Our ancestors, famous and otherwise, nearly always appeared downright stoic when having their pictures taken. And they rarely smile. Not only because they’re sitting for “formal” portraits, but because many had bad teeth.
The ritual of having to sit motionless for a painted portrait carried over into photography. Not to mention that sitters had no choice in the matter if they wanted the result to be sharp. Long exposure times meant that the subject simply could not move if the photographer was to capture a clear image.
What if newer, advanced colorization techniques could be combined with those of artificial intelligence to not only bring forth natural color from old b&w photos, but movement as well? As the writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
That is what we have now: a process more and more indistinguishable from magic. Consider George Washington. The president sat for many painted portraits, as befits the man and his station. Except: the man is just as valid as the station. What if we could not only view Washington in natural color, but see him blink? See his eyes move? Maybe even see him — smile? We have no photographs to work with, but what if a similar technique could be applied to paintings of the man? And to his successors?
Have a look:
Our predecessors did not appear exactly like us, of course. In those fading black-and-white images, with the antique makeup, jewelry and clothing, we rarely find them attractive, the men as well as the women. But add a little color, a little movement, perhaps even let an algorithm play with a hairstyle, and you have this:
I’ll match Maude Adams against any of today’s cosmetically enhanced beauties. With color and a smile, doesn’t Sarah Bernhardt look just a little like Elizabeth Taylor?
Why restrict ourselves chronologically? Paintings of the Roman emperors are scarce. But the ancient Romans insisted on accurate representations of their appearance in sculpture, so:
What is amazing about this technology is that it is in its infancy. In less than ten years I expect Washington to stand up and speak, Caesar to move in three dimensions, and famous beauties to be available to substitute on your communications device for Siri and Alexa — not just verbally, but in person. In a hundred years ….
In a hundred years we’ll be able to invite them all around for a party.
Oh, wait, not that kind of metal. I’m referring to the musical kind. The genre known as heavy metal, or more concisely, just metal. Music as typified by such progenitors as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rammstein, Evanescence, and these days by bands like Apocalyptica, Sonata Arctica, Amon Amrath, Sabaton, Stratovarious, Hammerfall, and many more. Far too many to name. And of course, Nightwish. Calling Nightwish a metal band is like labeling Beethoven a songwriter, though they can go as hard as anyone.
There are so many practitioners of metal and so many bands that there are specific publications dedicated to the genre, like Metal Hammer (metal-band names tend to be takeoffs on High Fantasy tropes). Confusingly, the illustrated magazine Heavy Metal was about comics and graphic novels, and was the English-language version of the French magazine Metal Hurlant.
When any creative subgenre, be it of fiction, music, painting or sculpture, gets popular, satire and parody inevitably follow. The best satire builds on its subject matter instead of simply making fun of it. Think the political sketches on Saturday Night Live. The skits skewer their subjects while also becoming political commentary in their own right. Metal-music parody is no different. Any group can make fun of the genre by dressing up and throwing out thunderous riffs. Borderline metal group Spinal Tap naturally comes immediately to mind. Or, going back much further and branded as pop-rock, The Monkees. What was intended to be little more than a TV joke ended up producing some very good music.
Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds. With regard to classical music one thinks of the Hoffnung Music Festival, or for Americans, Victor Borge.
Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds.
Ever heard of Pirate Metal? It’s exactly what it purports to be: metal produced and played around a pirate theme. Its foremost proponents are the Scottish band Alestorm (even the name is a satire on the genre). I highly (perhaps I should say heartily) recommend their video Drink. Also Keelhauled, Shipwrecked, Fannybaws, and, well, one that’s not reproducible in a family paper. With some sharp instrumental playing and wackadoodle singing, this band will have you in stitches while simultaneously appreciating their musical abilities. Nothing is sacred and the only thing they hold back on is their actual capacity to imbibe all manner of recreational stimulants.
I am told this how Scotland is and the Scots are, but having been there a couple of times myself I remain dubious. Perhaps it all takes place behind closed doors only, and me without a ticket.
Currently we have Gloryhammer, which has a creative connection with Alestorm (there is more incest in the metal genre than in six generations of mittel-European royalty). Scifi Metal instead of Pirate Metal. Once again, driving power metal with excellent musicianship in the service of songs like “Legendary Enchanted Jetpack,” “Power of the Dragon Laserfire” (I am not making these up), “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee” (these are Scots, remember), and the immortal “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder”— about as metal a song title as anyone could come up with. The lyrics are commensurate with the titles, but if those are all cheese, the music is not. Inspiration is where you find it.
I could go on, but we’ll end with the band Nanowar of Steel, which is an Italian parody band doing satirical music in the style of northern European metal groups. The lyrics to their songs are hilarious, the music is great, and the musicians are inspired. I recommend “Norwegian Reggaeton,” which may change your perception of Caribbean music forever, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which is something other than what Lovecraft had in mind, “And Then I Noticed that She was a Gargoyle,” which is kind of the obverse of the TV show The Bachelor.
In any event, there is the recent “Valhallelujah.” If you don’t have a favorite Christmas song, even ifwhere Christmas is concerned you are deeply and severely humbugged, I suggest you watch the video for this one. There is a great central riff, some moving gospel, and a concluding suggestion for Christmas gifts as well as the anxiety that attends them. Furthermore, the band’s founder, Edoardo Carlesi, is a noted polyglot and astrophysicist. So if “Valhallelujah” is not your liking, you can try his 2013 paper The imprints of quintessence dark energy on the cosmic web and galaxy clusters.
These groups are not a vaccine, but they do inoculate against taking everything too seriously. Also, unlike anything from Pfizer or Moderna, you can sing along with them.
When a writer signs on to do a “work for hire,” sometimes the contract is for a onetime flat fee, and sometimes it includes an advance against royalties. When the advance has earned out, then the writer receives royalties. It has been thus in the publishing industry for a very long time: a relatively straightforward and time-honored business relationship that pleased everyone.
There was rarely a problem when mergers occurred between two publishers, because everyone understood the arrangement. Then something strange happened. The creators of content (writers, artists, musicians) suddenly found themselves party to vast mergers that swallowed up not just another publisher but entire other corporations. Most notable of these was The Walt Disney Corporation’s recent acquisition of Twentieth Century-Fox and then Lucasfilm.
Some of you may know that I ghostwrote the book version of the very first Star Wars film, as well as the first sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I also wrote the book versions of the first three Alien films. I always received regular royalty reports from the original publishers. Then Fox and Lucasfilm were swallowed by Disney and a funny thing happened. My literary agency stopped receiving royalties. They no longer even received royalty reports.
When a writer is dealing directly with a publisher it’s fairly easy to track such things. When a gargantuan entertainment conglomerate that bestrides the land like an all-consuming colossus arrives, small things tend to fall through the cracks. Even writers and their modest concerns.
That’s what happened to me, and subsequently to the writers’ organization to which I have belonged since the beginning of my career (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), also to a growing number of other writers.
It took my agency about a year just to find out who had the rights to (and income from) the three Alien books. Previously, an agent or writer could simply call a publisher and ask. It was a little easier to find out who controlled the rights to the two Star Wars books. Subsequently — well, you get brushed off. You, your agency, your writers’ organization, the writers’ organization’s lawyers. To a corporation the size of WDC, you’re just creative dandruff. Unless.
Unless you go public, which is what we finally did. Now, suddenly, there is communication between my representatives and the WDC. It’s funny what the light of day and a little publicity can do. We’ll see if the brushoff continues or if a resolution to what is at base a simple matter eventuates. Disney is claiming that in purchasing Fox and Lucasfilm it only acquired the rights to properties and not the obligations joined to them. It’s an interesting approach.
Anyone out there paying off a mortgage? Why? You clearly own the house, so just sell it to someone else and explain that the mortgage doesn’t go with it: then buy it back free and clear. It’s the same concept.
It’s a pain to have to deal with something like this, but my representatives and I finally decided we could no longer simply let it slide. Because, money aside, the more you let giant corporations get away with such things, the more they will continue to do so.
Here’s how I presented my original complaint to the WDC. Pretty straightforward, I think, addressed personally to Disney’s most venerable representative:
We have a lot in common, you and I. We share a birthday: November 18. My dad’s nickname was Mickey. There’s more.
When you purchased Lucasfilm, you acquired the rights to some books I wrote. STAR WARS, the novelization of the very first film, and SPLINTER OFTHEMIND’S EYE, the first sequel novel. You owe me royalties on these books. You stopped paying them.
When you purchased Twentieth Century-Fox, you eventually acquired the rights to other books I had written. The novelizations of ALIEN, ALIENS, and ALIEN3. You’ve never paid royalties on any of these, or even issued royalty statements for them.
All these books are all still very much in print. They still earn money. For you. When one company buys another, they acquire its liabilities as well as its assets. You’re certainly reaping the benefits of the assets. I’d very much like my minuscule (though it’s not small to me) share.
You want me to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) before even talking. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs in my 50-year career. Never once did anyone ever ask me to sign one prior to negotiations, for the obvious reason that once you sign, you can no longer talk about the matter at hand. Every one of my representatives in this matter, with many, many decades of experience in such business, echos my bewilderment.
You continue to ignore requests from my agents. You continue to ignore queries from SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do — ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away. Or possibly die. But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me. That includes the right to not be ignored just because I’m only one lone writer. How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?
My wife has serious medical issues, and in 2016 I was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of cancer. We could use the money. Not charity: just what I’m owed. I’ve always loved Disney. The films, the parks, growing up with the Disneyland TV show. I don’t think Unca Walt would approve of how you are currently treating me. Maybe someone in the right position just hasn’t received the word, though after all these months of ignored requests and queries, that’s hard to countenance.
Or as a guy named Bob Iger said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
I’m not feeling it.
Take bees, arguably our most beneficial insect. They provide us with honey that is not only nutritious and tasteful but therapeutic as well. They pollinate our fruit and vegetable farms, giving us food. They pollinate flowers, giving us beauty. And yet for many people they have somehow acquired a reputation for being argumentative. Yes, they sting, but only when seriously provoked, something useful to remember during election season. Bees always work together for the general good of the hive, one reason they’re called “social” insects. Nobody rails at them and calls them communist insects. Bees don’t worry about being labeled by other species.
About ten years ago they colonized our well house. Starting from nothing, they built an enormous, thriving hive, not unlike the folks who founded this country. They made use of their natural environment (without destroying it) and constructed a compact, highly successful little civilization. They’re all immigrant stock, too. Our honeybees were imported from Eurasia. I enjoyed watching them at work on the blossoms around our house. We’ve been here for forty years and in all that time I was stung only once, my fault. Can’t say the same for local politicos.
One time they colonized the main house, and we had to have them put down. It was a painful but necessary move. Their buzzing was keeping us awake and they posed a danger to our dogs. But the colonization of the well house was another matter. It was well away from the main structure and posed no threat to our animals. Except — the combs they constructed outside the smaller building blocked the doorway.
I could walk right up to the hive, filled with thousands of busy workers, and they completely ignored me. But if I opened the door it would break off some of the comb, and they would likely react the same way as if someone broke into our house. So we had them moved by a beekeeper. Ten years later they were back, and the same situation developed.
Combs hanging outside, filled with honey and larvae. This time we engaged some folks from Skull Valley. Tom and Michele Veatch of Prescott Beekeepers came out and spent the better part of an afternoon moving the bees. This involved cutting the combs from the well-house roof overhang and placing them in wood slots that then fit neatly into a wooden box; a hand-built new hive.
Understandably, the bees were a bit upset. Even though it was to their ultimate benefit, making them understand was not possible (when was the last time you were forcibly relocated?). So they swarmed a bit, and some of them got a bit pissy, as Tom and Michele said. But there was no ferocious attack. These weren’t Africanized bees (I prefer the term ‘uncivilized’). Watching Tom use a flat-bladed tool to scrape hundreds of live bees off a comb and into a box was fascinating. Michele and I monitored the process from maybe thirty feet away. Even though there were bees all around, they never bothered us.
When the sticky job was finally complete, Tom loaded the newly populated hive into the rear of his pickup, which was uncovered. “They’ll stay with the hive,”Tom assured me, as indeed they did, all the way back to Skull Valley, where they are now comfortably ensconced in their new location.
Subsequently our flowers have been visited by other bees, and not just honeybees. At least half a dozen different species have come to visit. Arizona is bee-rich. I watch them when I can, usually when I take a break from work. They’re having a long season, not unlike our politicians. Also unlike our politicians they’re not interesting in stinging and raising welts and injecting venom. They just go about their business: building their hives, raising their young, making honey, getting ready for winter and trying to stay healthy while avoiding the Varroa mite. The Varroa is to honeybees what Covid-19 is to us.
I’d say that we could learn a lesson from our local honeybees, but somebody would probably call me a radical socialist for making the analogy. Honey is bees’ Social Security, and nobody seems to object to honey. But I still think it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe if we were a little more like honeybees, sharing the work and the honey, we’d stop yelling at each other for a while. Even the drones get their share, but just a fair share. If the drones monopolized all the honey, you wouldn’t have much of a civilization, and the hive would die.
I don’t want to see our hive die. I don’t want to see it become uncivilized, striking out violently and blindly at every perceived threat. That doesn’t make for a happy hive.
So I’m taking a few moments to watch the bees and enjoy the flowers. Winter will be here soon enough.