Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lots of decidedly implied violence: 'The Impossibly' by Laird Hunt

A wise man once said 'we are all of us unreliable narrators'. Actually I thought I was that man, but it looks like a guy named Frank Wu, who has more Google juice than I do, has also said this. People (myself included) are always deceiving themselves as to their own flaws and shortcomings, or re-shaping the narrative of their lives, perhaps to improve employment or sex partner prospects. This can even be found in a perverse negative way amongst people at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings trying to out do each others' stories of hitting bottom, or among Born-Again Christians trying to convince people they were the worst sort of scum of the earth before they saw the light, perhaps to make the change in their life seem more dramatic, or to convince 'bad' people that they are inferior to the convert in terms of their capacity for badness.

Given this fact we can forgive the narrator of The Impossibly for at times contradicting himself, even sometimes admitting a retelling of a particular story is more what he wants to believe happened than necessarily what actually happened. It's also important to take into consideration that as a freelancer working for some shady international crime syndicate, years of training have made him very reluctant to provide details about some of the ugly violence he's been involved in. The book is full of violence, but there is none of the gleeful graphic goriness found in, for example, a Tarantino film. Consider this retelling of a dinner with his colleague and perhaps friend, John:
We do not, sir, have turkey, nor do I have for you an explanation.
And all I am asking for is an explanation.
Please leave.
We did, finally, and following something a little like the interaction I have just described, get our turkey - they had some, by chance it seemed, in the freezer. Neither of us at the end of eating it entirely believed it had been turkey, but it had been called turkey with maximum enthusiasm by the man whose head John had placed in the sink, and it had been appropriately garnished, so we didn't complain.
Our narrator's life, as it turns out, is not particularly glamorous. He spends a lot of time lying on the floor listening to the river, and attends to mundane tasks like finding the paperwork required in order to get his washing machine serviced.

He meets a woman who has trouble coming up with the word 'stapler' (perhaps English is her second language - it's not clear), and they fall in love for a while, which it becomes clear is a high point in an otherwise entirely unsatisfying life. Together with his new love, his friend John, and her friend, Deau (yes, 'John Doe' - and these two people are the only people with names in the entire book) - he takes a trip to a town in the country, which everybody very much enjoys, and a good time is had by all. Unfortunately prior to the trip he's given an assignment, which he at first accepts, but later backs out of. He also manages to put the wrong address on a package before sending it, another screwup that pisses off his boss.

He is then 'disaffirmed', a punishment involving humiliation and considerable violence. Again, nothing is spelled out, but it seems he was burned repeatedly, and ultimately stapled (with the aforementioned stapler) to the table.

He and the woman separate, he takes a job in a bakery and gets very fat, sings opera, wears shorts, and, as is always the case in these kinds of stories, gets drawn back into the organization. He seems to meet the woman again and re-connect with her, but it's unclear. Identities become more fluid and uncertain. Hats and sunglasses feature prominently. This part of the book culminates in his participation in a particularly horrifying event involving a feather duster, red duct tape, a 'miniature computer' (this was written in 2002 - it'd probably be a smart phone now), and following orders delivered by intercom in a pitch black room filled with people 'none of whom knew who had been chosen or who was coming or what beyond unpleasantness would occur'.

By this point both narrator and reader are quite disoriented and it becomes increasingly difficult to piece together what exactly is going on or what happened. Not that this difficulty is a bad thing necessarily - sometimes for example upping the difficulty level on a videogame makes it more rewarding, and humorless unimaginative types who demand linear stories devoid of ambiguity will have given up before page 10.

Our hero, such as he is, is sent to live in retirement - a perk described in brochures for the organization, as he recalls. His basic needs (food and shelter) are provided for by mostly unseen people, but he still hasn't left the violence behind -
It was into something like this last that I went late one evening to witness, and in a small way to participate in, an event. It was not a nice event - there was a lot of white rock and then the white rock became splashed with red - but it was diverting. At one point, after I had, more or less symbolically, taken a turn with the mallet, I remarked to another individual that what they event lacked in subtlety it made up for in vigor. Yes, it's colorful, the individual said. I feel like I've gotten some exercise. Yes, definitely, I think the upper portion of my forehead is damp. Yes, mine too. I won't dream at all tonight. Or if you do it will be pleasant. Why is that? No one knows.
Our narrator goes on to conduct an investigation to determine the identity of his assassin. As the book draws to a close, much is revealed, and there is a shock at the end - the magnitude of the shock will depend on how well the reader has been keeping up, and, indeed, on how the reader has chosen to make sense of the events.

I've read the book twice - something I rarely do - partially because I was fascinated with Laird Hunt's style and enjoyed the absurd sense of humor our hapless narrator possesses, and partially, I admit, to take another stab at making sense of the thing. Having done that, there is now a storyline I confidently believe is the 'true story', but that's not really the point. It's possible another person could read the book and have a different version of the story which they firmly believe is what happened, and that's perfectly OK with me. The book is like life that way - a series of almost random events described by unreliable sources, and our minds, desperate to see patterns, create patterns where there may be none.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

30 years Later, I'm vindicated by the Cake Boss

Many people enjoy complaining about reality shows, because, like griping about there being no good Chinese food in town, it can really help you feel superior to those around you. Personally, I finished High School, and I love some reality shows, so the complaining-about-reality-shows magic doesn't work on me.

A recent favorite is the show Cake Boss, which is about a guy in Hoboken named Buddy Valastro, who has the classic New Jersey accent (which most people from New Jersey claim does not exist). He and his employees at Carlo's City Hall Bake Shop make the most incredibly inventive and artistic cakes imaginable, which are then eaten. This makes them like Tibetan Sand Paintings, only delicious.

In one episode there is a meeting of two highly creative cultures where Buddy and his crew make a robot cake for a hackerspace party. It's not some lame sheet cake with a computer generated robot decal on top, nor a flat cake cut in the shape of a robot. It was a 3-D motorized robot, driven by Buddy using remote control.

Another episode reminded me of my own brief experience with creative cake design. It was 1977 and I was in the Cub Scouts, which is pretty much the extent of my military experience. Anyhow, our pack was going to auction off some cakes to make some money, and there would be prizes for the best cakes.

I was very interested in airplanes, particularly airplanes from World War I, so I decided to make a Red Baron plane as a cake. This presented a couple of challenges. One was that mixing red food coloring in with vanilla icing resulted in pink icing, no matter how much food coloring I used. Another was the whole business of how to hold up the top wing of a biplane. I had already given up the idea of making the Fokker Dr. I triplane that people associate with the Red Baron, which was fine really, because earlier in his career he flew the Albatross DIII, a biplane. There were some monoplanes used in WWI, the Fokker EIII being a good example, but biplanes are just cooler.

I did not know what great building materials rice crispy treats and fondant, (used extensively by Buddy's team) are. I didn't even know what fondant was. My Dad and I did come up with the idea of using cardboard 'struts' to hold up the upper wing, and that worked quite well.

Needless to say, the biplane stood out among the cakes in the shape of race cars, and the cakes in the shape of cakes, but with a picture of a race car on top. I ended up winning 1st prize, but as is always the case, haters gotta hate, and when they found out there was cardboard in the cake it caused a minor controversy and some comments about 'oh no what if I accidentally eat the cardboard?'. I ended up getting my picture in the paper, but in the caption they described it as a 'pink airplane', which pissed me off, because as mentioned earlier I was not exactly thrilled that the red hadn't worked out.

30 years later I'm watching Cake Boss, and Buddy gets a job designing a cake for an Air Force event. Of course there has to be a an airplane as part of the tableau, and guess what, Buddy uses a wood scaffolding and builds the plane around it using rice crispy treats and fondant. Next to that airplane, my airplane looked like the Wright Brothers plane, or even that plane with a hundred wings that folds up like a lawn chair in that funny clip. Still, I was glad to see that using cardboard was perfectly fine, as even a cake genius like Buddy needed to use something non-edible but sufficiently rigid to hold the airplane up. The Air Force airmen didn't whine about 'oh noes, there is wood in there!' They loved the cake, and as always the episode ended with everybody happy and agreeing that life is wonderful, especially when you're doing something you love.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Happiness Hat Will Solve all of Your Problems

This was in Gizmodo weeks ago, so this isn't exactly a scoop, but it really captured my imagination: The Happiness Hat Will Spike Your Skull.

happiness hat from Lauren McCarthy on Vimeo.

While the idea of having a spike poke my head to remind me to keep smiling is unpleasant, an honest self-assessment tells me I really could have benefitted from such a thing in my youth. Even when I am not in the grips of the black dog of depression, I'm not particularly a smiley guy. This caused much social friction for me throughout the years. At my first 'real' job, which I really hated (ostensibly I was writing C++ code for the Navy), I once had to endure a lecture in the break room from a woman who was brainwashed by Disney. It started with 'you know what I notice about you, Steve? You NEVER smile!' She then proceeded to let me know how wonderful my life was, and how I had a wonderful job and really should be happy. I wondered at the time: who would feel happy and lucky in the middle of a dressing down from the Cheer Police?

Though she was a loathsome person who would do things like sing two lines from the song 'Young At Heart' repeatedly over the course of several days, there is certainly some validity to what she was saying. People do like and feel more comfortable around smiling people. I think there's a Chinese Proverb that goes 'A man without a smiling face should never open a store'. Possibly it's 'A man with a smiling face should open a store'. Either way, if you frown all the time, stay out of the almost extinct small family owned store business.

In my case I believe it was always assumed I was depressed, or angry, or stuck up. None of these is particularly great in the winning friends and influencing people game. And even though it's true that I don't particularly enjoy being around people and only really like a few people, I am the first to admit you can really open a lot of doors and even keep people off your back if you smile a lot. It keeps HR from looking into your business, and for that alone it's worthwhile.

The hat is of course ridiculous, but it's also very cute and non-threatening, which probably helps. It looks like something a grandma may have made, and who but the most monstrous heel would mock a smiling person wearing a cute hat made by a loving grandmother? It's a really brilliant prototype, and some engineering love could make the device practically disappear. Perhaps engineers could even use the technology that allows Rush Limbaugh's drug-destroyed ears to function here. Sensors could administer a shock not to cause pain, but to stimulate the face muscles to smile! The day will come when we'll never have to look at grumpy people again.

Of course, then we'll look elsewhere for emotional cues, and we'll be back where we started. Sigh. Why bother with any of these ideas? It's all futile.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Geisy Arruda of Brazil Keeps Berkeley Naked Guy's Fight Alive

Geisy Arruda, a Brazilian student at Bandeirante University in Sao Bernardo do Campo (near Sao Paulo), managed to get herself expelled for wearing a skirt that was deemed 'too short' by the people who get to decide these things, although in the pictures the skirt was no shorter than any skirt you'd see in a bar in a college town on any given night. At least that is what I am told.

This is strange to me for many reasons. Apparently it was not only the uptight, made-for-80s-college-exploitation-movies administration prudes who chided Arruda for dressing like 90s fake TV lawyer Ally McBeal, who also fought the power by wearing short skirts (she was also on a hunger strike, although they never explained why). Her fellow students also jeered her, and some are being suspended for that reason. Also, isn't Brazil famous for men and women running around naked or nearly naked? Somebody wiki that for me, please.

Geisy's story reminds me of Berkeley's Naked Guy, aka Andrew Martinez, who stirred up controversy in the early 90s by wandering about the UC Berkeley campus with no clothes on (he did wear sandals, and sometimes compromised by wearing a bandana, but not on his head). Naked Guy made the talk show circuit, but his story took a sad turn, as after college he had to deal with homelessness and schizophrenia, and committed suicide in prison at 33.

It would be easy to chalk up Martinez's naked activism to the mental illness he struggled with, but that would be disrespectful to his memory and to those who suffer from mental illness. It's possible for a mentally ill person to still have a mind of his own and strong beliefs. Geisy's story reminds us that people are still strangely uptight, and I'll be the first to admit that in above 80 degree weather, having to wear clothes can really suck. I'm also pretty sure this kind of thing drives the sort of people who founded the Creation Museum batshit insane, and I have to support that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You can't say I didn't blog today!

dentist lunch soul crushing boredom home wiggly dog hackerspace lasers lcd displays more lasers solar cell monitoring devices junk food the best show on wfmu featuring andrew w k twitter twitter twitter you are on reserve battery power shut down or you will lose data what does it all mean

Monday, November 09, 2009

Knee-Jerk News

Today the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The guy from Jesus Jones who sang 'Right Here Right Now' could not be reached for comment. MTV organized a concert in Berlin featuring U2, and came under fire for erecting a 2 meter wall to keep out people with no tickets. Several people were tasered while trying to climb the wall to escape during one of Bono's speeches.

A nameless storm wrecked havoc in El Salvador this past weekend. Meteorologists gave the storm no name in honor of Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name' character in the Sergio Leone films. Kanye West stirred up more controversy with a televised comment that 'George Bush does not care about South Americans'.

'A Christmas Carol' beat 'Michael Jackson's This is It' at the box office this past weekend. Film-makers blame circulating internet spoilers about the ending of 'This Is It' for the poor showing.

Nokia recalled 14 million phone chargers after discovering a youTube video that demonstrated how the chargers can hard boil an egg, and then deliver a fatal shock.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average surged 203 points today. In a press conference, Ben Bernanke announced that this marks the end of the recession for the cocaine and prostitution industries, which are believed by many economists to lead the rest of the economy by one quarter.

In the sports world, fans have been bewildered by the recent lightening of 90s home run great Sammy Sosa's skin. This is the first time a baseball player's appearance has changed drastically in a short time for no apparent reason.

An Arizona State University poll released today shows half of Arizonans are avoiding large crowds because of the flu. The poll also revealed that half of visitors to Arizona are avoiding large crowds because they're full of Arizonans.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Tonight on Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry goes to buy a tackle box for his friend Funkhouser, but gets into a heated argument with a clerk who won't sell him one because he doesn't have a fishing license.

Later, while discussing the script for the Seinfeld reunion, Larry screams at a waiter who gave him Lime Diet Coke, when he had asked for Diet Coke with real lime in it. Seinfeld tries to rein Larry in, but this makes Larry so angry he tells Seinfeld the reunion show is off.

At Funkhouser's birthday party, Larry presents Funkhouser with a gift card for the Sporting Goods store that refused to sell him the tackle box. Funkhouser expresses his disappointment with the gift, using that voice of his that sounds like something from a radio PSA about symptoms of Acid Reflux disorder. Susie overhears this exchange, and cusses out Larry, which is hilarious because she's a woman.

Finally Larry is ejected, and on the way out he sees a plate of glasses of Diet Coke with slices of real lime on the rims. He tries to grab one, which prompts Funkhouser to punch him in the face. The scene freezes right before Funkhouser's fist makes contact with Larry's face, and the signature tuba theme begins playing.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Anyone can hate this: the 'nathlete' billboard.

Like Maxfield Parrish, I dislike billboards. In a more pragmatic way, I understand that billboards featuring infants pimping out tire stores or car dealerships are good for the economy: the most likely local family business can use the advertising, and the billboard rental company employs people, too.

Still, most billboards have no reason to exist. I'm thinking of the 'Integrity: Pass it On' billboards. I don't really need to be inspired while I'm driving. I need to pay attention to the road.

A particularly egregious offender that's annoyed me more than I should allow billboards to annoy me is the Natural Light billboard defining a nathlete as 'holding two natty's while doing 'the robot''. There's just so much to dislike about this.

First off, the definition makes no sense. 'Holding natty's while doing the robot' is an act, a 'nathlete' is a person. See the urbandictionary entry. You don't hear a sports broadcaster say: 'wow! She really gymnasticed that one!' You probably wouldn't define mathlete as 'performing implicit differentiation in a competition in order to mark off a checkbox for your MIT application'.

Second: referencing the robot is a really lazy way to go for the laffs. The go-to breakdancing move for the 'look at whitey trying to breakdance' joke used to be the worm, but now it's the robot, possibly because this requires even less athletic abiliy. You can probably do better. Of course, if your job is writing copy for Natural Light ads, you probably can't.

Third: there are much better beers than Natural Light. More importantly, there are much better CHEAP beers than Natural Light (Pabst Blue Ribbon, Milwaukee's Best). There are even better horrible beers to drink ironically than Natural Light (Keystone Light).

In conclusion, the only way this billboard could be worse would be if it somehow made light of alcohol-fueled date rape. And that's all I have to say about that.

This post brought to you by helping people over 30 understand what the kids are going on about since 1999

Friday, November 06, 2009

The results are in!

I lost to some of the most moronic blogs imaginable! I flopped at the Fish Fry! Back to Brownsburg for me.

I should post a link, but I already deleted the email.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

'I am riddled with ADHD' - Glenn Beck's Goon Squad 'Faces Their Storm', attempts to read.

Tim Heidecker on Twitter alerted followers that Mr. Crocodile tears has rounded up another ghost writer to help him crap out yet another book guaranteed to sell to the teabag crowd. The site calls it 'an instant Holiday Classic', and it really is a tribute to the hack or hacks that were able to crank out reams of schmaltz on such short notice.

This one looks to be a tearjerker: The Christmas Sweater. There's even a 'Christmas Sweater' bus, which is probably a 9-12 Project bus that's been repainted for this latest exercise in pumping up Glenn Beck's ego while separating his fool followers from their money. There are probably 'Christmas Sweater' t-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, keychains, and more to follow.

Readers (many of whom admit that they're not really readers, which seems appropriate since Beck is not really a writer) are invited to share their stories. I know I did, and so should you. Of course by 'your story', I mean some fanciful and hopefully amusing work of fiction, which is maybe not what Glenn Beck means. That is, if his dim flickering candle in the wind intellect has any awareness that the site even exists.

To inspire you, here are some excerpts from the 'Face Your Storm' website:

Honestly Glenn, if I had not read that book, I don't know if I'd still be here. - Jennifer

Glenn, you may have inadvertently saved my life, because I found the courage to keep going and face my storm. - Sherri

Thank you for sharing this remarkable story with us, it truly was divinely inspired. Now all I have to worry about is my friends being able to read through the tear stained pages.- Philip

Let me start this off by saying I'm not much of a reader. I decided to give your book a chance, because I am a fan of yours. “The Christmas Sweater” was the first full book I've read in probably 3 or 4 years...I finished your book this morning. I didn't go to church this morning, but God met with me in my room as I read your story. - David

I read the book in two hours and I have seldom been so deeply moved and affected. I have been hiding from that storm in a bottle of wine and I have been stuck in the cornfield...I have a long journey ahead of me, but I am hoping that I just discovered the will and the willingness to make the first step, because of your book. What a gift, and what a story. - K

Thank you again. You have become a voice I turn to, to lift me up and help me understand this world we much live in. - Marilyn

I’m not a crier. I ‘misted’ when my kids were born, but I’m a tough worker who prefers to use humor to get past tough situations. I bought An Inconvenient Book because it looked informative. I bought The Christmas Sweater, because I thought it would be interesting. I’m travelling for work, so I’m sitting in my hotel room with tears streaming down my face as I realize you are writing a fiction based on your life, but it could easily be based on my life, with few exceptions. I have come to realize that even in my hard work, I’m still standing next to the corn field facing the storm.

This story has helped me make a life-altering decision that will bring my life, I believe, to the level God has reserved for me.

- Don

I am not a reader. I think I am intelligent, but, like you, I am riddled with ADHD. That awful H in there has me to where I cannot read. Well, today I BOUGHT your book and READ your book. - Bob

I guess I have a different idea of what constitutes a story than these people do. Apparently a story is a way to fellate Glenn Beck using only words. I have to admit, though, that crying my eyes out and getting a visit from God who will personally thank me for buying Glenn Beck's book sounds like it would be pretty interesting.

I attempted to leave a story, but it didn't show up. It probably has to be approved by some e-mail reading flunky, and since I didn't thank Glenn Beck for saving my life by hitting me with the lightning bolt of wisdom (presumably while I was standing in a cornfield, which apparently figures heavily in this book), it's unlikely it will be published. But as Glenn Beck shows us, anybody can write a book, even if they've rinsed the neurons out of their brain from years of drug and alcohol abuse, even if they themselves haven't read a book since high school. So to hell with the website, write your own book. Nanowrimo is already underway, but with enough Ritalin, I'm sure you can catch up.

Truly, the man is doing God's work. God Bless America, and God Bless...oh, I can't say it, not even as a joke. Fuck Glenn Beck. With a corn cob fresh out of 'the cornfield', dipped in turpentine.