Friday, August 27, 2004

Evolution of Humour, part 1

Some time ago, I was browsing's Welcome Back Kotter forum. Based on memories of the re-runs, I feel the show was always insufferable, and I wanted to see how many 'fans' agreed. Most, alas, pin-pointed John Travolta's exit, or the 'maturation' of Horshack as the breaking point. Those things may not have helped the show any, but I think it was dire from the premise on.

Anyway, one poster had a sublime realization-- in many a show, the characters that are supposed to be funny, the ones people glom to the during the show's first run, are not funny in the least. Rather, it's the 'straight' (as in 'not comic,' rather than 'not gay') characters, the ones who aren't written as borderline retarded, who are truly amusing. I dunno who the 'actually funny' character in Kotter would be (Horshack, of course, is the funny-retarded character), but the poster also cited the case of not-actually funny ReRun vs. actually-funny Raj in What's Happenin'.

I always liked Raj best.

It's a dead-on observation, too. Take one of my favourite shows, The Monkees. I'm sure people cooed over Peter Tork, and rolled around laughing at Micky Dolenz-- at least they were supposed to. Hell, I do even today at times. Still, when I watch my season 1 DVD, it's apparent that Peter Tork the character isn't as amusing as Peter Tork, the intelligent off-screen commentator, that Dolenz is far more charming when he's not acting loopy, and that the most witty and engaging characterization is given to Mike Nesmith, whose cynicism (and sideburns) probably turned off some of the kiddies back in '66.

Dolenz and Tork play 'cute kids' by acting like an ADHD three-year old and a none-too-bright three year old respectively. Nesmith tries the teenage-ingenue bit on occasion, and is totally unconvincing at it; he was married with a child before becoming a Monkee, and it may have affected his ability to successfully impersonate a preschooler. When he acts as an adult, the default brains of the group, he's not just amusing, he's the only character with any depth or who even hints at depth. 'Peter' and 'Micky' are caricatures, and 'Davy' is drawn with too few lines to make it into the second dimension. 'Mike' seems human, and if his screen test is any indication, he really was being true to himself-- being a person.

The same is kind of true of the Beatles. Lennon's sharp-edged foolerly and Ringo's sweet clown act drew the raves in the '60s, but watch Help! or A Hard Day's Night now and see how underrated George Harrison's role in the films is. His AHDN scene with the slimeball television exec shines as bright as the "solo turn" scenes given to Lennon and Starr (McCartney's were cut, probably because his comic timing was off. I'm guessing this based on the rest of his filmography.). George's little comments in Help!-- his implied rivalry with Paul, his attempt to impress the girl, his sweetly underplayed rescue of Ringo-- all provide a charming contrast to the OTT wackiness that threatens to derail the film at times. I'm not saying Lennon and Starr weren't good, as they were (McCartney, though...), but George's contributions were underappreciated.

Where am I going with this? That anonymous JtS poster was onto something-- a character with comparatively dry and subtle wit, one whose comic side is backed by maturity or otherwise grounded in reality, will age better than a character whose comic shtick is composed of repetitive puerile outbursts and/or wacky hair. The character whose appeal lies in a pretty face, a reputation with the ladies (or girls) and little else will certainly lose against time.

Hell, even Full House demonstrates the rule. Danny Tanner wasn't great shakes as a character (I love Bob Saget's po-mo take on his role, though), but Uncle Joey the unfunny man-child was terrible even before his damned talking woodchuck suspended the viewer's reality from the neck until dead. Danny and Uncle Jesse (Elvis act bad, but sarcasm good) had each a modicum of maturity that made them watchable. So did the long-suffering father in Family Matters, particularly in his interactions with Urkel. It's just too bad that wacky-wacky-wackjobs are popular enough in the short term to hijack shows that otherwise might have been fair entertainment.

Things that go boom!

The DECO guys are still cleaning up the mess from that failed transformer. The happy new transformer itself is in, but they've spent the week laying a new cable from one end of the station to the other. It's quite a production-- a swarm of DECO guys, all of whom have company vehicles that dwarf our own (sizeable) trucks, plus an assortment of heavy machinery and a huge, noisy thing to clean out the manholes.

Oh, and the circuit breakers...

They've been opening for three straight days, with muffled explosions that sound remarkably like the blast that started this whole mess. These are planned explosions, of course, not the sort that cause alarms and emergency dispatching, so they're exciting in a good way.

Today's breakers aren't DECO's, though. The very loud blasts today come from our own Delle that Gerry and the guys are testing. It's a little reminscent of the Civil War battle re-enactments I could coming from Ardenwood during California summers.

I love it down here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

i'm ignorin' it.

I didn't notice when McDonald's changed their slogan from "We love to see you smile" (hell, that one didn't even register with me) to the current, ubiquitous, "i'm lovin' it," and I haven't eaten there since my last annual shamrock shake. I prefer to ignore them, but my radio station makes that impossible. I listen to a Canadian radio station, which plays a mix of very good, mediocre, and crap but is still the most "listenable" station that gets good reception in my car. They also have good weather reports and a mix of Canadian and US-centered news, but on the down side they have McDonald's as a major sponsor. I get at least one of their commercials played at me every third commercial break.

They rate as follows:

--The first one I heard, for 'sundae treats.' I guess these bear the same relation to an ice cream sundae that a "happy shake" does to a proper milkshake.
Annoyance rating: 5
It seemed short, and while it was played constantly, the rapid-fire delivery and raucous, androgynous vocals (kinda like Shirley from Sly and the Family Stone) made it strangely tolerable. The trademark "I'm lovin' it" phrase was so slurred I didn't even make it out until hearing the line in another commercial.

-- Which would be this one, for salads.
Annoyance rating: 10. Or maybe 11.
Totally un-frickin'-bearable. The girly-girl vocals, the appalling lyrics, ("It's okay to stare/I'm the queen bee/eat your heart out/it's all about me)... gyah! Okay, McDonald's comes out and says clearly that shallow, narcissistic morons who speak in cliche buy their salad. Anybody still hungry? This one didn't seem to get as much airplay as the "sundae treat" one, so maybe people joined me in turning it off.

-- Another commercial with a brief run. Possibly also for salads.
Annoyance rating: 4 or 6. 4 if it truly was so unremarkable that it wasn't worth committing to long-term memory, 6 if I don't remember because I kept turning it off. All I remember is the tagline, which was sung in a voice close to that of the hideous salad girl.

-- The toasted deli sandwich one, currently airing.
Annoyance rating: 7. Eager-beaver whitebread guy enthusing about toasted deli sandwiches, followed by a gratuitous slogan performed by a sleepy, grungy stoned-sounding band. The two approaches don't work, fake music like *that* wore out its welcome circa 1996, and while the sandwiches do sound good, I don't bloody trust McDonalds! If the commercial makes me want a toasted deli sandwich, I'll head to Quiznos. At least Quiznos has interesting commercials featuring spongmonkeys!

The bottom line: none of these commercials is more than adequate. Two leave me uninterested in the food, one makes me positively antipathetic toward the chain and anyone who eats there, and the fourth makes me think fondly of another sandwich chain. The "i'm lovin' it" push is a 100-country synchronized campaign, and allegedly it's boosted sales, but I think the next time I set foot in a McDonald's will be when shamrock shake season rolls around.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Yu-gi-oh: Giving anime a bad name since 1996

I watch anime to enjoy depth of characterization, intricately layered plot, well-developed symbolism, and yes, cute androgynous cartoon-people. When they all come together, as in Revolutionary Girl Utena (which also has fantastic music), the results transcend entertainment, animated or otherwise. You could call it art, but in a case like Utena, you could even call it cosmic.

[Sidebar: Cowboy Bebop also has wonderful characterization and music, and while the series is episodic instead of a continuous unfolding narrative, the individual episodes have well-crafted, surprising plots. It's my favourite non-shoujo anime by a mile.]

I'm glad that anime is quickly becoming mainstream in the US, but while it's a treat to be able to pick up Bebop and Utena at Suncoast, the shelves at Best Buy are eloquent testimony to the sad fact that many anime shows are drivel or worse: pointless mopey schoolyard love triangles with interchangeable non-evocative titles, giant robot sagas in interchangeable post-apocalyptic settings, and pointless excuses for cross-dressing. Maybe Strawberry Eggs is a great show with crap packaging (like Central Park Media's tragic mishandling of Utena), but I'm not even inclined to find out.

Just above the bottom of the barrel are probably the "gimmick" shows that exist solely to get kids to collect stuff-- cards, mainly. I exempt Card Captor Sakura (NOT Cardcaptors!) from condemnation-- it was a CLAMP manga, it's very visually appealing, and it has actual characterization that was all ruthlessly excised from the English dub. Yu-gi-oh, however, is vile. The main character, Yugi Moto, is one of the ugliest little freaks to have a show centered around him, the supporting characters are bland, and the English voicework is contemptible. The Egypt-invoking plot is as unoriginal as it is crappy, and can anime shows please stop naming characters Anubis? The card-game itself is apparently fairly demanding, but I don't play card games and won't give the show a pass for that.

I anticipated that the just-released Yu-gi-oh! movie would make the Pokemon flicks look like Tezuka's Metropolis by comparison, but the critical mauling it's received (a whopping 2% positive on has been gratifying. True, most reviewers were too irked by the gimmick to even wax eloquent about the film's crappiness, but some were detailed enough to confirm that Dan Green does the dubbed voice of Yugi. That's a sign of quality, oh yes-- Green was reponsible for the slimy vocalizations that ruined the character of Mikage in the Utena dub. Given that Hikaru Midorikawa was the original Mikage, that's a hell of a come-down. I suppose I could say that Green has finally found his niche, but Yugi's dubbed voice is so objectively unpleasant that it makes Yu-gi-oh more unwatchable than it already is.

I can only hope that the movie's release marks the downswing of the Yu-gi-oh franchise.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Your Dog May Be a Genius, But You're Just a Loser

People have strong reactions to those "My Kid is an Honor Student" bumper stickers-- to the point that there must be a fair market in retaliatory stickers. The most common of these is probably "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student," which is rude enough to be funny.

Wait a sec, though. What does this sticker really say about the people who use it-- or even those who laugh at it? It doesn't take much analysis-- the message is simply that its better to be able to pound the daylights out of someone than to even appear to do well in school, and that, by extension, the people who appear to do well in school deserve to be pounded.

Bill Cosby needs to give these people a lecture, no matter what colour they are.

I admit that those "Honor Student" stickers are kind of a joke, given what little it takes to be an honor student in a lot of schools. Even allowing for that, the very fact that the parents put these stickers on their cars suggests that they take some pride and interest in their child's education. Given the current state of education in the US, these people should be applauded.

Okay, this issue is old news, and all of these stickers have been around for more than a decade. I'm rehashing this because I saw a new variation on the anti-honor student theme on Friday that really, really got to me.

"My Golden Retriever is Smarter than Your Honor Student."

No, Rover is not. Even Rico the Border Collie is no match for an honor student deserving of the title, unless they're handing out bumper stickers at Tiny Tots these days. Your Golden Retriever may have a superb vocabulary, and possess a range of expression and emotion that makes him seem like a furry human, but your dog is a dog, and the intellectual whomp packed by a child of ten, or even five, outclasses your doggie easily.

Your dog can't write. Your dog can't read. Your dog can't use language as defined by Chomsky (he may he a jerk politically, but as a linguist he can't be laughed off). Your dog can't use formal logic, or even concrete logic. Your dog has no system of ethics, for that matter, and check your dog against the Kohlberg scale some time. A well-brought up ten year old should already be past the reward-punishment motivation for behaviour.

Speaking in relative terms, your dog is a moron. The average dog is arguably less intelligent than the average ape, dolphin, monkey, elephant, parrot/cockatoo, pig, and even octopus, in roughly descending order.

[Cats are intellectually below all of these, and also below corvids and squirrels, but that's a rant for another day].

I think dogs are a good deal more sophisticated than humans have historically given credit for, as are many animals, but claiming your dog is 'smarter' than somebody's school-aged kid isn't just rude, it's absurd.

[I would hazard some hypotheses about this individual being childfree and possibly despising children, but that would be an ad hominem. I am generally suspicious of people who worship Golden Retrievers, though. The breed tends to attract a particularly obnoxious strain of yuppie.]

The pig that died to make the pork I'm eating for my lunch was probably smarter than your dog. The molluscs that die to make tasty calamari, takoyaki, and camarone con pulpo are all as smart or smarter than your dog. How'd you like that on a bumper sticker?

"My lunch was smarter than your dog."

Maybe your dog is crackerjack mentally, sir/ma'am, but you're a sad, arrogant, ignorant loser.

Little Dead Fords, Continued

An Aspire has lain by the shoulder on I-94 eastbound near my exit for more than a week. Usually the defunct cars disappear in a couple of days, but no one was interested in this lonely little car.
It was cute, too. It's a reddish-purple that goes with the "girly" theme the Aspire ah, aspires to. I suppose it's beyond repair, and it's a sad sight, but I've become almost accustomed to it.

Yesterday, though, a little deep blue Escort similar to mine lay abandoned within sight of the Aspire. Not a reassuring sight, oh no. What's with all these little dead Fords?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Stuff got blowed up-- the saga continues

Breaking news-- Monday's explosion was not our fault. It also did a hell of a lot more damage than previously believed, and why it took four days for the alarms to go off is anyone's guess.

The DECO transformer is shot. The whole unit will have to be replaced. They have six or seven guys out here now, more than I've ever seen in one place, and I guess I'll be seeing them for a while. The transformer shouldn't take too long to change out-- DECO's are tiny compared with our 345-->120kV behemoths, which can be the size of a house.

The transformer actually failed on the spot that Monday when a fuse blew. The fuse wasn't discovered immediately because it didn't fall out the way a spent fuse is designed to. The house service (aka "the power in my office") didn't fail until yesterday, when it went out with no warning and screwed up my computer. Those z-phase lines to our equipment were shot, but our transformers have automatic mechanisms to protect them and DECO one didn't.

Working in the field is great.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Stuff got blowed up, part 2.

Lynda heard it at Relay 3, and thought that a circuit breaker over on the 2 mat had gone off.

Terry was sitting in the Relay 2 house, and heard it coming from the North, where the DECO stuff was.

Gordon and I, in Control 1 next to the DECO mat, were close enough to see the cloud of smoke enveloping the transformer.

DECO says its our stuff what's gone bad. Apparently something on our z-phase caused a fuse to melt on a potential transformer.

Weird. The investigation continues...

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


I am not a "movie" person. I am a movie review person, and spend too much spare time at, but I do not and have never gone to the flicks on a regular basis. When I do, it is because a very special movie "event" has drawn me in (LOTR: Return of the King) or because I am on the verge of losing my mind (The Alamo. No, really. And it wasn't that bad.).

I suppose Spiderman 2, which I saw in its opening week, falls in that first category. Good film, that, but that's a blog for another day, maybe. No, among the interminable trailers preceding the feature was a clip for something called Open Water, about a couple o' yuppies who get left behind during a scuba trip and encounter sharks, jellyfish and whatnot. It claimed to be based on a true story, and I did vaguely remember hearing of a left-behind couple in Australia some years back, but mostly the trailer was a lot of screaming and thrashing around.

I recall saying to Jon that I didn't understand what point there was to even making a movie like this. Either the couple is triumphantly rescued after all that screaming ("Susan? Susan?!? SUSANNN!!!!"), which is cheap, or one or both of them become fish food, which may be realistic (it sure happened to the real-life couple) but doesn't seem to fulfill the qualifications for a classic, cathartic tragedy. Either yuppies get lost, get freaked, and come home safe, or yuppies get lost and die. That second one may look tempting on paper, but a) you need a good script for it and b) the picture obviously wanted the audience to identify with the yuppies, not laugh cruelly at them.

It may sound like I'm cheap-shotting the film, given that I only saw the teaser trailer, but trailers give away so much these days that I felt secure in saying that this was a movie that probably didn't need to be made. Even in that clip, I saw too much shrill panic, too many close calls, to find a happy ending believable or satisfying, and I didn't want to see a snuff film with real sharks either. I hoped most people wouldn't go for that.

Well, the tomato-meter's data says otherwise, but even after reading positive reviews, I am not much swayed. Particularly since I cheated and read about the ending. While Ebert makes a powerful case for why the film would pack a wallop in an insightful viewer who recognizes the delusion of self-importance that gets most of us through the day, Slate's Edlestein sums up in the spoiler'd second tier of his review the problem I had with the very idea of Open Water: either you go for the cheap thrills followed by a cheaper rescue, or you sketch out a pair of marginally sympathetic characters, force the audience to identify with them just because, and obliterate them without the mitigation of allegory, symbolism, or even much in the way of a story.

Morally, I can applaud this decison on the part of the filmmakers, and if Open Water has the same profound effect on normal viewers that it did on Ebert, Edelstein, and some others who were unsettled not by the sharks, but what the film said about existence, then I suppose it deserved to be made after all. I still don't want to go see it.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Stuff got blowed up real good

So, I'm typing away at the computer a little after nine AM, and a loud but dulled explosion occurs out in the station yard. I can't tell at first whether some vehicle out on the road has backfired in a massive way, or if one of the transformers really did explode. I run to the door and look out its pane; a whitish-yellow cloud of smoke has encircled the 45 kV transformer. It's DECO's stuff, to be sure, but it looks nasty.

Gordon, far more experienced than I, thinks it's a cap cell explosion. He walks out to it, has a look around while the smoke dissipates, and finds nothing to prove or disprove his hypothesis. He does hear an alarm going over on our side of the station, at the 345 kV section.

Our operator over there hears the alarm, and she comes over to check things out. She's in our relay house long before DECO's alarms finally pick up the cry. She too thinks it's a busted cap cell, but finds little beyond a melted fuse in the annunicator panel.

Why our alarms went off and not DECO's is a mystery, especially as Gordon and I had no electrical problems prior to the explosion-- which just about rules out a house-service problem.

DECO gets their own guy out, and he finds nothing-- nothing at the transformer, the cap bank, no critters lying dead outside the fence-- no reason for that large boom and cloud of smoke.

This DECO guy isn't an incompetent either. Fact is, he's the husband of our operator. And he still can't tell what happened.

Just another exciting day down at the station.